One Eager Hostess, Short on (Perfect) Talents

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I have a somewhat secret and intense leaning toward hospitality. It especially steps forward every holiday season. The problem is that I have perhaps less talent than interest and desire. Also a smaller budget than allows for all accouterments and provisions I’d appreciate utilizing. And time can feel squeezed. But the truth resides more with the “less talent” part. Christmas, in particular, would be a welcome and industrious time of year except for this reality (allowing for obnoxious commercialism and its wearying impacts).

To start, I am not a great cook–alright, perhaps I am not actually a cook, at all, now. I’ve done little the past twenty-plus years (my husband cooks when he’s around– we slap something together at last minute or we eat at a restaurant/ order take out– after years cooking for my family. And I admit I cooked out of need, in a utilitarian fashion for the most part. Though I created full meals every day for five kids and spouse plus neighbor kids; used recipes from multiple cookbooks; learned by watching the few relatives whose cooking I admired and then determining to do better…well, I just got by. I did feel enthusiastic about baking. I deeply appreciate carbohydrates and sugar and spices and nuts and all. I turned out predictably delectable breads, cookies, cakes and a few pies, though pastry could be challenging, requiring tiny and major repairs. But baking seemed was a fun part, nearly recreational, not a required duty of my household responsibilities. Thus, it might get put on the back burner.

I grew up with a mother who loved to cook Southern, all-American hearty food. She, however, shooed us out of “her” kitchen so we could focus on studies, music, sports, and attendant activities–along with dates and church interactions (sometimes that could be the same). Yet it was through no fault of hers that I had lackluster response to an invitation to help her cook. Help make the family recipe for apple strudel? Yes, come get me anytime. But the rest was left to her and siblings with greater interest. Luckily, I could be persuaded to prep veggies and stir pots and make coffee and tea.

Preparing the dining room table, however, was right up my alley–especially for special occasions. I could unfurl and iron any tablecloth with napkins for ten without snafus. I could shop for and arrange the centerpiece with gusto. And I was eager to tidy the mail-laden buffet and organize records stacked atop the stereo cabinet. I looked forward to studying the china cabinet, all those dazzling groups of china and crystal. And give me the place settings so I can complete the whole look. My mother taught me early where each piece of (freshly polished) silverware was meant to be as well as the several assorted dishes, glasses or goblets and after dinner cups with lovely saucers.  Ah, table artistry was worth developing.

From the kitchen floated rich and tantalizing aromas as I went about my work, anticipating the doorbell ringing soon. Her bustling good nature was reassuring, the clattering pans a hearty accompaniment. I’d scan the living room a last time–did we get the errant dust, were magazines and books in their places and pillows plumped, was the baby grand piano duly shining and lighting good but low? Were the fresh tapers in their candle holders and lit? The flowers at their lively best? Cue the music–also my choice unless my father had already chosen symphonies. I was filled with excitement to greet the first family members or other guests.

Thus, my parents entertained off and on but even with family we shared good meals and an attractive table. I learned at a young age how to welcome all who entered our home. I also became attuned to smallest details (my mother, a fine seamstress and milliner, was all about color and details of design). I surely found it akin to setting a stage for the coming scenes, was carried along by anticipation and curiosity about the next restive hours. Anything could happen here, my writer’s mind informed me, and the backdrop felt and looked good.

So I had fine examples and practice for throwing a good party and for concocting delicious if standard meals. Mom knew she was no gastronome, but she did so well all that she knew, and we loved her scrumptious, near nightly desserts. (This was before the food culture proposed self-deprivation or at least self-restraint when it came to that fine finale.)

All this comforting history prepares and buoys me. Still, I have second thoughts each time I start to plan for holidays. It is an insecurity of mine, not being the desired whiz of a wife and mother, a devoted healer and comforter at the domestic altar of the kitchen. For one thing, I am not too wise in the ways of fresh fruit and veggie smoothies, the benefits of kale and heritage tomatoes and hormone free meats and organic everything. For another thing, we have family with all sorts of dietary needs: vegan, vegetarian (I didn’t know there was a big difference until a few years ago), gluten-free, lactose-free, soy-free, poultry-only or no legumes or no shellfish, and occasionally not even fresh salmon (one of my top foods)… versus “bring on the whole feast” that most families must get to enjoy. Each gathering requires careful lists for tricky diets and we painstakingly figuring out menus–unless they bring their own dish, which can happen, thankfully. It requires both my husband and myself to pitch in–and an early start. It requires stamina and skill. I suppose all holiday meals do for everyone. I’m not quite up to the feed bits, clearly, but it works out.

There is also a personal characteristic, a defect, I have to battle: perfectionism. I’ve worked on this my whole life. I understand from where it derives in my childhood and youth. But I don’t like to do things poorly–okay, I tend to prefer those activities I know I can do extremely well, that are road tested and time tested and end with the same result: a job very well done. I have made progress on this, though. As a young woman, I would not even attempt something I didn’t expect to excel at accomplishing. I could become paralyzed with the fear that I’d fail, so the experience of learning could be flat out miserable and my sense of self felt pummeled by any incompetence. An “average” grade was not even considered, an “acceptable” result was not worth anything. Thus, I did not even begin. What a miserable decision that was, for I felt worse about myself for not even trying–who of any fortitude just gave up? I couldn’t win.

In time the realization dawned on me that a lot of pleasures, perhaps less important but worthy experiences, were being missed. So I began to get more adventurous out there in the land of imperfection–which dominates so much of human life, anyway. And I also learned how to compromise here and there. Thus, if I was not a great cook but an average one, I could make what was better for me to make comfortably.. And if I felt unqualified to execute a  huge celebratory meal, I could focus on decor and other preparations. I could give even more energy to people, which is what I love most about gatherings for holidays or any occasions.

I was looking at older pictures recently of my granddaughter and grandson decorating sugar cookies with me after I baked them, and gingerbread houses and other activities. Happy memories, now that they’re 12 and 15. It brought to mind a conversation I had with Avery, the older one, at our Thanksgiving. She said she’d recently made a specially flavored vegan cheesecake and shared the recipe.

“Wow, I’m impressed!” I told her. “I know you’ve always liked to cook. You know I don’t…and I sure could never do that. I bet it tasted great.”

“Well, you can find out,” she said smiling. “We could make it together here sometime. You make good cookies and we’ve done that together– so now we can make cheesecake!”

I thought about that a minute; it made me feel nervous, this new recipe thing. But she was right. And she can teach her grandmother something good. It’s the time we spend that matters so much, not whether something gets a little too brown or the icing is a bit thin. It brings to mind another occasion. I like to take her and her brother ice skating  and just last week I posted a picture of Avery and myself on Facebook  from 2012. We skated a long, hand in hand. She didn’t know how to skate confidently; her brother was a bit wobbly. But I do know how to skate well, it’s an old passion of mine. However, neither of them ever balk at getting out there. They are glad to hang out and learn a little, too. So when she saw that picture of us, she responded, “Let’s go again soon!”

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Avery and me, 2012. We’ve skated since then–she has improved!–and it’s definitely time to get on that ice again!

I love being active but lately have lagged some (see, again this note of failure to do better, how maddening). Today I had a check up with my cardiologist about recent episodes of too high blood pressure. We talked of the aging of arteries (drat) and how I should take up Zumba or other dance classes again, hike more, join a new fitness club to blow off steam and get my heart pumping harder, better. I have had coronary artery disease for 16 years, diagnosed too young, but I have been determined to not let it take me down.

Then he leaned forward a little to ask about recent stress levels.

Guilty, as charged. My basic core serenity has frayed some, even flown out the window too many restless nights. One night recently I was awake until 6:00 a.m., then slept for four hours. Quite the experience, watching the sun rise out of the thick darkness, which feels like a too hot and heavy blanket when I am worried.

“Well, yes, I’ve likely had more than usual stress. It’s the holidays, for one thing! And my husband travels way too much and works too hard and he doesn’t like to go to doctors and i worry about his health…. Then I have a couple siblings who have been dealing with tough stuff. Thank the good Lord my adult kids are doing well!”

“Got to work on the stress, Cynthia. Blood pressure is labile, for some more than others. You respond to life deeply, and you need to find more ways to relax. Your slowly aging arteries gradually also get stiffer which causes blood pressure to increase some. But your stress– that can be managed better. Right? But I need to add a new medicine to bring it down and in a month we’ll check in again.”

Right, just relax, I’m not so young now as when first diagnosed–and perhaps not much wiser. As we wrapped it up, Dr. P. shook my hand warmly as always, wished me a merry Christmas and told me I am still doing well, overall. But I kind of missed being told I am his “star patient,” as he has said for so many years. (I outlived my projected “end date” and that is still the gift he gives me with all his care. And I do count my commitment to greater well being.) But honestly–the perfectionism thing again, I have to be so much better at managing heart disease than others? He was so right, I need to intercept smaller but cumulative tensions that can creep up on me. Remember how much I enjoy my life, all I have to look forward to still living. Remind myself to have a good time no matter the worries that come and go. Let go and let God help more. Life is full of eruptions, fissures and letdowns; it is up to me to keep things in perspective and have faith in human resiliency–with support.

So, give a little, take a little: my husband mostly cooks, yes, but I like to create a seasonal atmosphere that feels special and attractive as can be afforded (not too much, just enough; no commercial Christmas craziness with gaudy or cheesy items all about). I enjoy buying personal gifts for our crew and wrapping them prettily to place under our fresh cut tree. I can amp up the Christmas cheer with a little song and dance, throw in good hugs and welcome each person at our door as my spouse contentedly sweats over the stove. I derive a lot of happiness from doing what I can,  the best that I can do. Even if imperfectly.

( Below: Grandkids’ gingerbread houses, a few years back. My cookies with their decorations. I love the snowiness. I’d knock on those doors anytime! )

 

Making My Way Upstream

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I am no domestic goddess. I was all but shooed away from the kitchen as a child and youth as my mother reminded me that I needed to study or practice my cello or voice lessons, work on figures for ice skating, or whatever else was crucial to learn and do that moment. My parents were forward-looking people in a time when most were solidifying traditional roles. They wanted all their children to have their minds broadened, seek excellent educations. Mave a few good waves intellectually or creatively. I didn’t complain. On the contrary, I felt sprung from the brig.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the inviting ambience of kitchens. Few things were as reassuring as watching my mother create a fresh apple pie. I didn’t mind helping a little–I could swiftly peel apples and potatoes, occasionally in one long peel, thanks to her tutoring. But other than making salads, toast and poached eggs (the egg poacher promised me easy success), chocolate cookies and grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup, thanks to Campbell’s–well, my repertoire was severely limited but it didn’t impact me. (That was later, after marriage to a man whose mother ran her own catering business.) The best I could do some days was open a jar of home canned pears or peaches and sprinkle cinnamon with a dash of wheat germ on top for garnish. This was my response to being asked to make a fruit dish. Voila–nutritious sweetness, about the extent of my culinary aspirations.

I was good at being a hostess, however. I could refill glasses and coffee cups with elan. I could offer silverplated or cut glass bowls full of nuts and mints, platters of shining strawberries or lace-delicate cookies; I could sneak away an emptied dish and replace it with something new. I had no idea this was what waitresses did for money. It was just what children did when told. I was trained in niceties as well as the art of interested, fairly intelligent conversation. I didn’t have any argument with this. I liked to listen to and examine our guests. They often were musicians with fascinating tidbits to share. And a palpable tranquility is evoked when one behaves in a civilized way. Manners are still valuable to me, seemingly verging on extinction if many street and sidewalk behaviors are any indication. They may seem superficial to some, but if you practice long enough you will daily begin to feel more benevolent toward the general populace. And much more patient with those you’d prefer to ignore.

But while engaging in conversation or completing my small kitchen task, I was longing to climb our sheltering maple, get comfy in a crook of the tree and write another play for neighborhood kids. Yours truly snagging the starring role, of course. I wanted to sing the song wending its way through my brain or finish a poem I had begun the previous evening. And there was that montage I had begun with cut out pictures of a South American jungle, and a paddlewheel boat gliding down the Mississippi, plus that chic woman–Jean Shrimpton, a famous model, or was it Verushka, my favorite?–dashing across the street in London, a Pucci scarf dangling from her fingers. The scattered words I spelled out in different types: DO WHATEVER COMES TO YOU NOW. Or some such thing that found its way into my pile of clippings and I found clever or ironic.

As a child and youth I gave over to dreaming regularly. And today, as ever, when that creative impulse comes over me I’ve often felt as if in a trance. I just need to let things happen, be available to follow the muse. Right then. To do otherwise can feel as if I am a creature out of its natural habitat, an awkward, flopping fish trying to find its way upstream when what it wants to do is leap the tantalizing bank and fly. Or play a rousing Irish jig at a corner cafe before some sharp, hat-wearing guy and a gum-snapping brunette come in and grab said fish to fry up for a meal. Oh, gosh…apologies, I got caught up in the fish flying scene and my proclivities. What rescue does the next paragraph have to offer?

Well, back to the post at hand. The fish can carry on alone a bit.

There is always, in this adult life, work and obligations, and with those may also come the privilege to attend to creative work. To play but play whole heartedly. Thoroughness was the way. I understood that early on. It takes discipline to complete anything and to do it well, more of the same. It needs to be being done in a timely manner, too. “Every thing has its season”, I read and heard.

So that is what I have told myself as I have wrapped up the wedding plans. There has been so much to plan, re-check, alter, research, find a Plan B (or C) in the event Plan A falls flat. To complete the whole, the small details must be aligned and made to fit. The goal is a good wedding. Not an expert one, not one that the society pages review, thank goodness. But a wedding that will bring together families and friends and leave indelible contentment and laughter in the hearts of my daughter and her fiance.

Okay, but when do I get to write?

Every word that has gone into these posts the last five or six weeks has come at the cost of something else. Right now I should be cleaning the bedrooms. Or perhaps storing some of those mountains of books that are lined up against the electric heat board (in case it has to be turned on, or they get in the way of someone’s feet). I have more laundry to do. (Don’t we all?)

But I want to write. I long to write. Always.

It’s not that I have life-altering insights that others haven’t already noted a few times over. The feel and shape and sound of words entice me, bedazzle me, hold me up and free me. They are a currency I use to garner beauty and wonderment. They are what keep me afloat when everything has sprung a leak. Words can be the most attentive companions when other ones have somehow disappeared. They are the live wires that transfer–sometimes seem to translate–mythic ideas or fresh poetry, prayers I am given or tall tales from other realms to me, a writer. As an avid dictionary reader, I can say I have never met a word I have not fallen for, even when it turns out to be the wrong one.

So I am giving myself a few moments today. I know after tonight this place will be resounding not with words placed upon a page but those with life that is pulsing, soothing, words fully inflected issuing from the unique voices of my family members. Oh, it will be a cacaphonious symphony of sound and meaning. May we all enjoy such times.

Yes, I am about to put on my “hostess apron” and answer the doorbell many times. Greet adult kids at airports. Put out coffee and tea, scones or a pot of stew, all the necessary accoutrements. I am set to direct the logistics like a traffic conductor, whistle in hand. And I even bought a new teatowel and kitchen rug. I checked to make sure the best tablecloths are stain-free. I am hoping my husband will still be willing to cook most everything. I am truly not talented at this  but “act as if” because I like gatherings. But I can and will wrap my arms around each person. I can welcome them, smell autumn on their shoulders, or saltiness of tears (that wedding…), arcane and memorable scents of all as they sidle up and say something funny or good in my ear. I will be intensely present because I care to be here, and don’t want to miss one minute. Even if there are mishaps or difficult moments. It is the multi-texture of life, what is in between, under and over each weave that I seek to know and file away. It’s love.

The family members and friends all intrigue and inspire me. They are funny, daring, bright, full of foibles that can drive us all crazy, with hearts that beat in strong, diverse ways. I am going to dive in and write of them and the events. Infant poems are just there on the edge of thinking and dreaming, whispering secrets, unfurling colors, shapes, feelings. A story alights briefly, then floats, wings hovering, its energies infusing me with ideas. I will not forget; I will keep it all in the waiting place inside and finish my present work. I tend to believe the story itslef knows I will put down the tea kettle and pick up the pen again.

 

(Note: Due to the impending nuptials of aforementioned cherished daughter, I will not be posting again until later next week.)