You’ve been planning this for weeks. Not exactly planning, they all follow the same pattern by now, you’ve given so many. It’s just pulling it all together once again. You expect maybe 25 or 30 people; sometimes you worry it will only be 15 or 20, and then what about all this food? There’s always a disagreement with your wife over how much food. “I want it to be a real feast!” she says, planning on enough for 50.
You hire a taco guy, who alone makes enough food for 50; that’s his minimum. But your wife makes 4 or 5 dishes on top of that. Soup, a vegetable dish, a fruit salad, some shrimp. Your sister is bringing chicken. The night before the party, your wife suggests buying tri-tip and ribs from the local market; they barbecue in the parking lot every Saturday and it’s really good. Another fifty bucks.
That’s all fine if we really have 30 or 35 people, but what if there are only 15 or 20? Even 10 to 15? We’ll be sitting around, wallowing in food. It’ll be ridiculous.
You’re not much for RSVPs. First of all, most people don’t do them. People change their minds at the last minute: We can’t make it, so sorry. I’m coming after all, if there’s not enough food we just won’t eat, haha. Don’t be silly, we’re delighted you’re coming!
You always get anxious in the days leading up to it. Not so much all the work, you don’t mind the work. You’ve got it down to a science. Just the time pressure, and the worry, will people have fun, or will it be a flop? Lord, don’t let something happen like a political argument that gets out of hand, or someone getting seriously hurt or something, making the party memorable for the wrong reasons. But it never happens. It’s always great, so stop worrying.
The night before, you polish all the brassware in the house. You’re a big fan of the Master and Commander series of naval historical novels, where the sailors want to polish every bit of brass on the ship and keep the paintwork neat and trim. The captain once painted a brass cannon brown, to save people fussing over it. But the sailors manage to find a small chip in the paint and they rub at it, and the paint gradually wears off bit by bit, and they start polishing the underlying brass. A few weeks later the paint’s all gone and the gun is shining in all its golden brass glory. The sailors can’t help themselves, it’s for the honor of the ship to beautify it. That’s how you feel about the house. You don’t know if people notice the little brass things you polish — a small, solid brass clock, a bell, an old copper teapot with brass handles — but you figure, these little shining objects here and there throughout the living room, dining room, entry hall, they add to the overall effect, the warm glow of the place, like candle flames in an old church.
You like candles, too. Not too many, but a couple of brass sconces in the dining room, a couple above the fireplace; some on the dining table, on the piano, and one little candle on each table out on the patio. Warm glow, that’s what it’s all about, along with all the antiques and the golden oak floors.
You’re not rich. You don’t have a lot of really old and valuable pieces. But ever since you got married, you and your wife have agreed on one thing at least, that you’d rather have old stuff in your house than modern stuff. Old things have character, and they don’t have to be expensive. You have a rule that you both have to like them or you don’t buy them. You had no overarching plan, you just went shopping when you felt like it, and bought what you liked, assuming you could afford it and had a place for it. They’re all over the place chronologically and stylistically, but somehow they go together and people think you planned it all. Even if you had meant to plan it, there’s no way you could have come up with this. There are just too many things. You have four buffets in your house: One belonged to your late sister, one to your best friend’s late mother, one to your late grandmother. Only one of them was bought by yourself. You would never have planned a decorative scheme with four buffets. But they work. Four different ages and styles, the only thing in common being that they’re old and you both like them.
You hang lights on the patio, a string of “Edison lights”, old-fashioned-shaped lights with a glowing filament inside; globe lights; colored lantern lights. For good measure you put a string of lights on the apple tree in the yard. Golden glow.
Your wife is cooking up a storm, rushing about, reading directions, stirring, chopping, blending. She’s crazy, you think. She doesn’t have to do all that work. She’s gotta be as tired as you are. But it’s gotta be a feast, she says, and she does it cheerfully.
You’re getting tired, and there’s a ton of stuff to do tomorrow, so you start getting ready for bed, but she keeps working. You’re in bed by 11:00 but she’s up past midnight. You’ll sleep till 6:30 but she’s up by 5:30, back at work. Crazy. How does she do it? You’re getting crabby with the anxiety and all the things to be done and time running out, but she’s unfazed.
You go to the store to buy flowers, then to the other store to order the barbecued meat she decided she wanted. You gave in on the meat because she always ends up being right. People enjoy it, most of it gets eaten and you’re glad you didn’t skimp.
You want people at the party to have whatever they could want, nothing running out, everything to hand and plenty of it. Soda, regular and diet, caffeinated and non-caffeinated; beer; bottled water; white and red wine; your best whiskey. People give you whiskey as gifts because they know you like it, because you always serve good whiskey. Therefore, you always have good whiskey on hand to serve, and because you always serve good whiskey, people give you good whiskey because they know you like it. Works out well and costs you nothing.
You set up a table where people can smoke if they want. A couple of people smoke cigarettes, two or three smoke cigars. You’ve taken up cigar smoking recently. You don’t always like them, sometimes they’re too strong or bitter in the mouth. But there’s something about the smell that makes you want to acquire the taste. When the party’s coming up, you imagine the taste of whiskey and the smell of cigars, and you can’t wait. It’s the only time you smoke, once every couple of months or so, when you’re giving a party or attending one at someone else’s house in your small circle of friends.
After buying the flowers and ordering the meat, it’s 10:00 a.m. and people are going to start arriving in a few hours, so you’ve got to jump on your to-do list. You have to move all the stuff out from the side patio and sweep out the accumulated leaves and dirt, then put everything back so it looks neat and tidy. Not that people go over to the side patio, but if they did they’d see it’s clean. Honor of the ship.
Then you move stuff around and sweep the main patio. It’s a big patio with a big pergola over it. It was here when you bought the place, and it’s perfect for parties. You set up one table in the middle on top of an outdoor rug, with a loveseat and four chairs around it. Another long table on another rug. You have a bunch of old wooden chairs that you use rather than plastic folding chairs. You keep the chairs in the shed that you built, that looks sort of like a little craftsman house. You have your sons pull them out of the shed and dust them off. You set up a third, smaller wooden table with chairs, and yet a fourth, yet smaller table, just in case. You want plenty of seating so there’s no shortage of chairs and people can move around and sit wherever they may want. You put table cloths on all the tables, a small vase of fresh flowers, a little candle. Beauty and golden warmth.
You set up your stereo on the patio. You like to have music going constantly during a party. You hate going to a party at someone’s house and it’s silent. Music affects people differently. You and your best friend find that it makes or breaks the party spirit; but others are indifferent to it, your mom, your wife, don’t even notice if music is playing, and it doesn’t affect them either way. But your theory is that people are affected by the music, just as by the polished brass, the candles, the flowers, even if they don’t know it. It all adds up to a good feeling, of warmth, neatness, beauty, the goodness of God’s creation.
Your stereo, like everything else in the house, is old. You bought it cheap on ebay and repaired it. It’s a high-powered Sansui receiver from the early 70s. You’ve also built a pair of speakers from plans on the Internet, and they sound awesome, even if you didn’t do such a great job on the woodwork; that’s a skill you’re still developing. You set up the stereo and it has a green-and-gold glowing radio dial.
You’ve spent hours creating a playlist of the music to be played. You do this for every party. You try to imagine who will be there, and what kind of music will appeal to them. But it’s gotta be old music, nothing newer than the early 70s or so, and mostly 30s and 40s, with a song from the 20s on occasion. Old music, like old furniture, has got character and charm that’s lacking in most new music. But even if you could find new music with that charm (which you probably could), you still like the old because it creates a timeless atmosphere. You want people to walk into your house and feel like they’ve stepped out of their workaday world, and entered a warm, comfortable place of indeterminate time; to see things and hear music that they don’t see and hear every day. Like a one-day vacation.
You put the beer and soda on ice in the coolers. You put water and coffee in the coffee pot so that later on, you only have to plug it in to start it brewing.
You get all your work done, jump in a hot shower to soothe your weary muscles, shave so you don’t look haggard later on from fatigue and from alcohol. Dress up slightly but not too much; there’s no need to dress up, it’s just a casual party. But some of your guests might dress up and you don’t want them to feel overdressed.
People start to arrive and you offer them a drink. You pop a beer and the blessed alcohol warms you and starts to calm you down. You turn on the music and ask your son to light the candles. Because it’s unseasonably overcast, you even light the fireplace.
It’s a little awkward at first, as it always is. The first few guests arrive and you don’t know them. They’re friends of your wife’s and she’s busy cooking. You don’t quite know what to talk about, and there are still a few loose ends that you want to get done before most of the people arrive. They don’t want anything to eat or drink. But it always gets better as the party develops. Each party has a different feel to it and they’re all good in their way.
They keep arriving, and you start to relax and eat some appetizers, greet people, thanks for coming, thanks for having us. Your house is beautiful! Well, thanks! You know it is, but it’s nice to hear. You know it is because people keep telling you so. You’re not so sure that it’s tasteful, the mixture of styles and periods you think might be too much of a mish-mash. You’ve read that eclecticism can work, but it’s not easy to pull off, you have to know what you’re doing. But people rave about it. “It’s soooooo nice, I’m overwhelmed! So many nice things to look at. I would LOVE to have a house like this but I wouldn’t know where to start.” “You don’t think it’s kind of a mish-mash?” “Not at all! It looks just like you planned it this way. It looks like you took a lot of loving care putting it all together.” “Wow. So nice to hear, thanks! We like it but we figured it’s just our taste.”
No one mentions the brass items that you spent so much time polishing. But they see it. It’s all part of what makes it nice. You can’t put your finger on what makes it nice. Nothing individually is spectacularly beautiful, it’s just the overall effect. Not to mention that your wife cleans the daylights out of it, so that on the day of the party it’s immaculate. Cleanliness brings out the godliness.
Your wife signals that the food is all ready, go ahead and round the people up to say grace. “Lord, thank you for giving us this chance to get together, we thank you that everyone arrived safely, we pray for our guest of honor, our beloved son, on the occasion of his graduation from college. Grant him your grace and guidance to decide on his next step. Bless our loved ones who couldn’t be here and have mercy on the souls of the faithful departed. Bless us, O Lord, and these, thy gifts, which we are about to receive from they bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Throughout the party people keep saying “What a great party, you guys really overdid it, look at all this food!” You go around filling people’s wineglasses, offering them a beer. They appreciate it when you wait on them. They’re at their ease. Something to eat? Something to drink? Boom, it’s there. Something savory, something sweet, hot, cold, you got it, and plenty of it. “Oh, you don’t have to open another bottle.” “Don’t be silly, there’s plenty.”
You plug in the coffee pot because as people eat and drink they might start to get sleepy, plus some of them have a long drive home. The smell from the percolator fills the air in the kitchen. You break out the china cups and saucers for the coffee and wait on people some more. The coffee is good and hot and perks you up, helps to refresh your palate after all the rich food and drink.
You sit and talk and munch and drink and smoke. The wine lifts your spirits and loosens your tongue. People laugh out loud. Kids are running around or playing with the pool-slash-air-hockey table you set up on the patio. There’s a portable firepit in the middle of the yard. “You guys give the best parties!” It was expensive and a lot of hard work, but it’s always worth it. You worried a lot of people wouldn’t show up, but you got over 30. You worried there was way too much food, but all of the dishes you made got more than half eaten. You’ve got plenty to give away. You have lots of ziplock bags from Costco and you fill them up and put them in plastic grocery bags and send people off heavy-laden. A lot of people brought wine and there was too much for you to drink it all, so you got free wine out of the deal.
“I just love coming to your parties, it’s so warm and inviting here and the food is wonderful, and the people are so nice and so interesting! I loved meeting your family, your friends! Such a warm, friendly atmosphere! Make sure you keep me on your list. When’s the next party? There must be something we can celebrate! God is good, we love you! So glad we’re family!” That’s what you want to hear. Makes it all worth it.
God is good, warm and gracious. Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which we have received from thy bounteous goodness. Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overfloweth. One day in your house is better than a thousand elsewhere.
After writing the above I had an argument with myself:
That all sounds nice, but isn’t it rather hedonistic? Well sure, if we lived like that every day, but this was a special occasion.
Fair enough, but should you rely on all those sensual pleasures to have a good time, pleasures of the eyes, ears and palate? The only essential thing is the people, isn’t it?
You sound like someone who doesn’t put a lot of work into his parties. : )
But seriously, you sound like a Protestant. No offense intended, but I’m thinking of some of the old-line Protestant churches I saw in New England. They were nice-looking churches, but the insides were plain, white-painted wood, with maybe a simple wooden cross behind the altar (that is, where the altar would be if it were a “real” church).
Whereas traditionally, Catholic churches were filled with things calculated to give glory to God, and to be conducive to worshiping him: Carved wood and stone, arches, vaults, statues, candles, censers, altars, crucifixes, kneelers, railings, lanterns, tabernacles, organs, stained glass. Can you worship without all those things, as in those old Protestant churches, or in today’s more spartan, commercial-looking Catholic churches? Surely. Is it the same? Surely not.
We and the beautiful things of this world are all part of the same creation. We’re made for each other. Ours is an incarnational, sacramental religion. God manifests himself in his creation. To place and arrange beautiful things in such a way that people may enjoy them is, in a sense, to make God present to them. He gives us this capacity that we may do as he does. To use creation as he intends, for good purposes and in good order, pleases him and makes us happy, and shows forth his glory and his love for us.