Sometimes I think I’ll have a party. A big party, perhaps, inviting all the people I can think of. Or maybe a small dinner party with a few guests chosen because they have common interests. Or a medium sized party — about 15 people I think might be congenial.
The poodles love parties. Visitors excite them and they get lots of attention. Perhaps they like parties the way I did when I was a child. One of my earliest memories is of my parents having parties in the small apartment where we lived in Washington, D. C. I was born in 1932, the bottom of the depression, and the birth rate was low. I had few other children to play with so I watched adults. Grown-up talk was strange and mysterious. At my parents’ parties I think most of the conversation was about radical politics, but once, when I crept out of bed and peeked into the living room, I saw my father standing on his head for the amusement of the guests.
The summer of my 6th year I spent at my grandmother’s villa in Alassio, Italy. There were frequent evening parties. The room I slept in overlooked the terrace where the grown-ups gathered for cocktails before dinner. There again I would creep out of bed and onto the balcony to watch the ladies in flowing chiffon dresses and the men in evening dress. I suppose the talk was about the threat of war — it was 1938 and they talked of little else. Of course I didn’t understand, but I knew something frightening was about to happen.
Most of my growing up time was spent in the house of my aunt and uncle. He was a teacher and director of The Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. There were many parties in that huge old house, and a big gathering for Sunday lunch was a regular event. Other teachers from the school came, artists and patrons of the arts (people who might contribute money to the Gallery) came and, most interesting to me as I grew into adolescence, boys from the school came.
The conversation at these informal gatherings was generally about education or art. I have little snippets of memory of exchanges like — one photographer to another — “I NEVER crop!” The food was a miscellaneous buffet. My aunt’s friend Prissy Hallowell often brought a leg of lamb and her husband, Pen, an English teacher, carved it. The rest of the meal was whatever occurred to my aunt on Sunday morning, assisted by whatever members extended family were resident in the house at the time. People ate where they could find a comfortable place to sit — in the living room with its big bay window, in the den with its corner stone fireplace, or, in good weather, on the veranda which wrapped around one side of the house. Dogs and children romped and scavenged. Dogs begged for scraps of meat, children concentrated on dessert.
Later in the afternoon many of the guests, along with their dogs and children, migrated to George Washington Hall at the school where there would be a rehearsal of a student play directed by Pen. Often the plays were Shakespeare. Sometimes I was chosen to act a female part in the plays. Since at the time Andover was a boys school female parts were mostly played by faculty daughters or wives. I was a terrible actress, but I loved the idea of theater and the ambience of stage. Those Sunday Lunches were a big part of my education.
A boy I got to know at Sunday Lunch was Tom Wyman. Tom, who later became chairman of the board of CBS, was president elect of the senior class at the academy. I was only in my second year of high school. I was delirious with happiness when he invited me to the prom.
Three weeks before the prom night he stopped calling or coming by to see me. When he came to pick me up for the dinner and dance he was cold and formal. He presented me with my dance program, filled in for every dance except the first and last which could not be swapped with another boy. I was mortified. I fixed a tense smile on my face and began the long evening.
At the dance, which was in the gym, there was a pack of boys without dates who had come stag. Suddenly I found myself in a whirl of partner switching as one after another of the stags cut in on my programmed partner. One of the more frequent of those who cut in was Jack Ordeman, (who grew up to be head master of St. Paul’s School in Alexandria, VA), and I later learned that he had organized this cadre to redress what was considered a cruel insult to a sweet young thing. Jack became my boyfriend for the rest of my high school years.
Sunday Lunches continued through the years. They happened when I visited with my own small children; when I moved back to Andover after the failure of my first marriage my children loved going every Sunday. The old house was still full of teachers, artists, relatives, other kids, dogs, laughter and learning. Prissy and Pen still brought a leg of lamb.
After my uncle retired he and my aunt finally left the crumbling old house in Andover and moved to Peterborough, New Hampshire. The Andover house, with its 3 stories, 10 bedrooms and acres of grounds was too expensive for my uncle to keep up on his small pension.
Sunday Lunches continued in Peterborough. My aunt invited anyone she met who looked like a promising guest. Sometimes I visited with one or more of my grown children. My cousins were often there with their children. My uncle died, and Sunday Lunches continued. My other uncle, Dickie came from Italy to live with his sister, my aunt. Sunday Lunches continued. Dickie died but Sunday Lunch carried on.
My aunt’s close neighbors (who kept sheep) brought the lamb. Another neighbor always brought soup to start the meal. Sunday Lunch became a neighborhood tradition. After my aunt died the neighbors who kept sheep said to me, “She brought us together.”
My aunt died in the morning. My cousins and I were with her in the hospital, and we had been up most of the night. We went back to the house and began preparing food in a dazed sort of way. People drifted in. She died on a Friday, but it began to feel like Sunday Lunch, only this party continued on into the evening. By about 11 o’clock at night we had finished eating, my cousins and friends and neighbors and I were sitting around the big table in the dining room. Someone told a dirty joke. Then someone else told another. Around the table, one after another, everyone contributed an off color joke. Tears trickled down my face, from laughing, from exhaustion and from grief.
I always wanted to do Sunday Lunches. That was the kind of party that seemed the most fun. But my aunt is gone. I am a different person, no longer the child who romps, or the young girl who flirts, or the young mother who tries, without success, to control her kids. I am the old woman in charge. I worry that the house isn’t clean enough (my aunt never noticed); I worry that there isn’t enough food (my aunt never considered that possibility); I worry that the food won’t be wonderful (my aunt was supremely confident of her cooking); I worry that the guests won’t blend congenially (my aunt’s guests always did).
I sometimes have parties, but they are never as much fun as Sunday Lunch at my aunt’s house.