My Mother’s Parties
Nancy at the Sink: Dishes and Modigliani, 1971
The people down the block are having a party, a loud party with screams, barbeque smoke, and deafening bass notes that rip up the street like jack hammers. Windows rattle, trembling oaks lean dangerously into the parkway, trying to escape the cacophony; the night impatiently awaits the hour of dawn that will see the festive guests stumble into their own far-away beds under the rising sun. I shut my windows against the cool night breeze, draw the thermal drapes, and turn up the air-conditioner to drown out the noise.
I never go to loud parties, excluding, of course, the occasional wedding reception where guests are held hostage by some intrusive disk jockey whose function in life is to scream at wedding guests to get up from their seats, line up in single file, and snake around the room shimmying to the insistent beat of his amplified boom-box music.
It’s not that I don’t like parties. I grew up in a household where get-togethers were the norm, for my mother, Nancy, loved a good party and could always find an excuse to give one. There were Ground Hog Day parties, Boxing Day parties, birthday parties, cast parties, tea parties, Sunday afternoon parties, and parties just for parties’ sake.
Invitations began with a few phone calls and then took on a life and momentum of their own, streaming in all directions through Nancy’s mismatch of friends and acquaintances. And within an hour or so of the first announcement, everyone we knew, or had yet to meet, was marking the designated date on their respective calendars.
For at least two days before each gathering, Nancy would set aside her dressmaker work and give herself over to the preparations. Most important was the food, and she’d make a list of all the necessary ingredients, including their cost down to the last penny, and head out for the supermarket pulling her shopping cart behind her.
Then came the cleaning, the scrubbing of floors and washing of windows; the laundering of curtains and slipcovers, the dusting and waxing, so that the house smelled like a copse of pine trees and shone like brushed velvet. The “good” glasses and dinner dishes—all courtesy of Hill’s Supermarket—were washed and stacked on the dining room table. The punch bowl and assortment of matching and almost matching punch cups came out of storage and assumed their pivotal position on the oak buffet in the dining room. The real silverware—a hand-me-down from one of her wealthy customers whose last name must have begun with the letter S—was polished and laid in neat rows along with their mundane cousins, the various and sundry flatware of everyday use.
On the morning of the festivity, Nancy would roll her thick white hair in green rubber curlers and begin preparing the food—potato salad, macaroni salad, green-gelatin salad, turkey, leaf salad, plates of carrots and celery, bowls of walnuts, dates, figs, biscuits, cookies, cakes. And, of course, there was her famous punch, which she made with ginger ale, frozen lemonade concentrate, gin, and strawberries. Everything—except the lemonade concentrate and gin—from scratch. Everything prepared ahead of time so that the only work she’d have to do during the party would be to wash the dishes as they were used and set them out again. No paper plates or plastic anything. That would have been a sacrilege, an insult to the food as well as to the guests.
The festivities were always supposed to begin at eight, but inevitably a few close friends would appear at the door before the official hour. It was often my job to take their coats and lead them to the food and drink while Nancy slipped upstairs to apply the finishing touches of her hostess persona. The trick, she said, was to appear as though she hadn’t lifted a finger all day, that the polished house and dishes of food had done all the work themselves, that her guests should take her cue and bask in the magic of the evening.
The trickle of guests soon turned into a stream, and the house took on a reddish glow as if it had dipped into Nancy’s punch before any of the guests had gotten to it. The windows staring across the night became mirrors filled with chatting people, some balancing plates of food or tall stemmed glasses of wine, others holding up their side of the conversation amid waves of laughter, clinking of glasses, and occasional applause.
Some of the guests claimed a spot on the couch, whose ancient stuffing still exhaled under the slipcovers Nancy had pieced together from leftover fabric. There they would spend the entire evening enlisting a spouse or me to fetch their plate of food or another nice glass of that lovely punch. And did I think Nancy would share her secret recipe? Of course, it was no secret recipe for Nancy always offered to share it with anyone who wanted it, but they asked anyway. Other guests never sat down, and spent the evening flitting from one group to another, chitchatting, gesticulating, making pronouncements about life, literature, or the cost of a Broadway theater ticket.
Nancy spent the first part of the evening in the kitchen washing dishes, sipping her vodka tonic, and shooing away anyone who offered to “help dry.” She didn’t say it in front of her company, but she thought them hopelessly inept as kitchen helpers, always losing one of her good silver forks or breaking one of her precious wine glasses or spilling the salt. She always preferred to do it herself. Nonetheless, she drew people into the kitchen where she held court amid the shushing of running water and tinging of dishes.
The conversations flowed from the personal to the political to the literary and back to the mundane with unaffected ease and completely logical disjointedness. Each time I entered the kitchen with a tray of dirty dishes or empty serving plate in want of a refill, Nancy would be in conversation with yet another of the guests who had joined her entourage at the four-legged double sink.
No one was left out. She had a sixth sense for loneliness and knew instantly if a guest in another room was left without a conversation partner. And off she’d go to make sure that person came back to the kitchen with her or found a place amid one of the clusters of partygoers.
No matter how many people came, there was always space to breathe. This was, of course, by design. For, before the parties began, the furniture was always rearranged like an ancient Chinese painting, with little islands of positive space, that is, where visitors could sit in groups, and irregular expanses of free space where they could move about, follow their noses to the dining room, or wander into the kitchen.
Nancy didn’t approve of background music, insisting that it interfered with conversation, which was, after all, the main reason for having a party in the first place. Later on, as we three children grew into our late teens and early twenties, she would designate a music floor for us and our contemporaries—usually the basement. But, the music was never so loud as to interfere with our own conversations or with those of the old folks on the floors above.
The young-people part of the house was darker than the rest and more eclectic with its assortment of aging furniture and low-pile carpets, summer sling chairs, and copper piping that coursed along wooden joists. Once in a while, a full-fledged grownup would descend to our cavern and stay for a while before getting bored with our puffy prattle about saving the universe and the need to shave one’s legs if one wanted to appear in public wearing nylon stockings. Sometimes, we’d take out guitars and imitate Joan Baez or Elvis. I tried to imitate Eileen Farrell, but it only made people laugh.
While downstairs had its temporary youthful charms, upstairs was warmer, softer, and better integrated, so all of us eventually came up for air and food and talk. Here we greeted the regulars who showed up year after year—Audrey and Jim Scarr, Rea and Joe Jacobs, “The Countess,” David and Gloria Jackier, Virginia Purvis, Ken Brinsmeade, Larry Forde, John and Joan Maguire, Boris Haimson, Mary Jean Smildsin. There were also the acquaintances and relatives who showed up every now and then. There were her sisters, Josie and Mamie, who lived in Ohio and would occasionally make the trip, especially for Boxing Day. And there were our younger friends—Bill Einhorn, Margita Hatfield, Charles Napoli, Geoffrey, Ann, and Polly Purvis—and new friends, and fleeting friends, and even one or two of my father’s girlfriends. Nancy welcomed them all with equal grace and abundance.
The evening rode on a long wave, beginning with whispers that slowly built momentum and volume, rising to a crescendo between 10 and 11 PM and then, just as slowly, retreating under more subdued waters. That’s when the coffee and desserts came out. Amid the oohs and ahhhs and stirring of spoons against the fine coffee cups from Hills Supermarket, the guests began to say their goodnights. But, always and without fail, there were at least eight or nine who lingered until the small hours of the morning, sipping coffee and taking philosophy, theater, and Nancy’s beloved George Bernard Shaw. This was Nancy’s favorite part of the evening, for it was at this point that she threw off the role of hostess, allowing herself to be waited upon by the remaining guests.
When she died, we didn’t have a funeral for her. Instead, we had a celebration in her honor. The old friends and acquaintances came as usual, and we passed around a book in which people could write their memories of her. Rea Jacobs wrote: “Nancy’s Boxing Day party was the spine on which the year hung limply.”
The people down the block are having a party, and it’s spilling into the street and trampling the marigolds. There’s an argument of some sort; someone just smashed a bottle against the pavement. The angry music continues to suck the air from the night. Tomorrow morning, the line of cars will be gone, the noise will have snuffed itself out, the barbeque smoke will have risen into a gray cloud and washed into the horizon like so much slop, and the cowering ivy along the road will sputter and cough under its blanket of paper plates and glass bottles.
My mother’s parties were designed and executed to bring people together for good food and conversation as well as a sense of belonging to life. The people down the block seem to have planned tonight’s party as a way to escape from life—that’s why they drown themselves in their own noise, scream at one another, and stuff themselves with chips and beer.
I might be accused of romanticizing my mother’s parties of long ago. After all, isn’t that what we all do when someone or something becomes a memory? I might also be accused of not having kept up with inevitable changes in social decorum, of failing to appreciate a new way of manifesting exuberance, in short, of having become an out-of-touch party poop.
Whether or not I’m guilty of these misdemeanors, I’d rather attend the memory of my mother’s celebrations than open the windows on such a night as this.