My mother loved to entertain. By that, I don’t mean she would sit at the piano and sing torch songs or tap dance around the living room. Hers was the old-fashioned idea of entertaining, where one invited a mix of people to enjoy good food and drink in an attractive setting, and hope to generate lively conversation, a good bit of laughter and some warm memories. The mix would include some old friends who could be counted on to maintain the conversation and the party mood, and some interesting new acquaintances who might become friends (and usually did, after attending my mother’s parties).
These days, when we have friends over, it is almost always a potluck where everyone brings a platter and a bottle to share.
My mother would have scorned this limited idea of hospitality. Whether it was a bridge party, a ladies’ lunch or a party for the entire faculty of the school where she taught, her parties were carefully orchestrated from appetizer to dessert, sometimes with a theme, always with an eye to which new acquaintance would add spark to the mix, what combination of people would ensure a lively gathering and who should sit next to whom.
Her cupboards were full of party equipment. Her dining table could be extended to accommodate 6, 8, 10 or 12 people. She had tablecloths and napkins to accommodate each size, plus pretty crystal place card holders to let people know where they should sit. For bridge parties and ladies’ lunches, she had smaller tablecloths with matching napkins.
She had high-ball glasses and champagne glasses and wine glasses and martini glasses. For larger parties, she had an ornate glass punch bowl with two dozen matching glass cups, a ladle and a special mold for making an ice ring full of frozen fruit to cool the punch.
For winter parties, she had a soup tureen for serving bouillabaisse or curry, scallop shells for baking coquilles St. Jacques and abalone shells for helpings of shrimp creole. For summer parties, she had individual trays with paper liners for eating outdoors, and parfait glasses for serving raspberry ice cream parfait.
With my father’s help, she would choose and tape appropriate music to be playing in the background for each party. A few weeks ago I found a cassette tape in my mother’s house labeled “Party tape – Once a year day!”
As I played the tape through, I remembered that party. It celebrated my father’s 60th birthday, my parents’ 35th anniversary, the ceremonial burning of the mortgage for the house in Los Altos and the wedding reception for my younger brother and his wife. The soundtrack was full of happy tunes: “Once a Year Day” from “The Pajama Game,” “Happy Days Are Here Again,” a New Orleans jazz version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” jazz piano, and dance music (“Edelweiss” for the bride and groom, who had married in Germany, “Always” for Mom and Dad to mark their anniversary). There must have been more than 50 people flowing in and out of the house and back patio. The punch bowl was refilled again and again. It was a wonderful afternoon.
My mother and father are both gone now. As I look over the items I am packing up from my mother’s house, I’m remembering the good food, good conversation and good times associated with each Jell-O mold and baking tin. I’m also thinking that I’d better start issuing more invitations, or the only party of mine that folks will remember will be the wake.