Sunday Lunch

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.

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13 Responses to Sunday Lunch

  1. I can’t tell you what mean things I wished on Tom Wyman ( a man I have never met and will never meet). Cruelty. Something I consider to be unforgiveable. And how my heart warmed to Jack. He must himself have been relatively young, but he could recognise and takes steps to amend cruelty. A rare thing in a person of any age.

    And I love to hear of your worries about cleanliness, enough food and the quality of the food because these are things that haunt me. And it would never have occurred to my parents to worry about them. And I think their lives were made easier for not worrying about these and other trivial things. Perhaps it was because they lived in such momentous times that they only worried about the big issues. And now I will never know.

    Thank you for another post which has made me think.

  2. I used to love to entertain. Then, after the car accident, I just couldn’t handle the work it creates so I stopped. Now, we often just meet friends at the beach for a picnic and everybody brings their own food. Either that, or we meet friends at a restaurant. I do miss having people to the house but I just don’t feel like I can handle the workload “one-armed.”

    Those lunches you had seem fabulous though. : )

  3. Mage Bailey says:

    What an absolutely wonderful story. I think of my grandma’s magic as you write of your Uncle and Aunt. Thank you.

  4. Sunday lunch at Big Clare’s house. Eskimo pies from the freezer in the mud room! Some of my best childhood memories : )

  5. Ernestine says:

    I love reading what you share 🙂
    You made my evening.
    When I was growing up
    everyone would come by my grandmother’s
    for dinner.
    I loved it.
    Home made ice cream, running barefoot in the yard.
    Now I am back home in the small cottage I built at the
    edge of the woods. Everyone I felt close to has died.
    Children visit monthly – but everyone is busy.
    Just not like it use to be.
    Wonderful memories…

  6. Natalie says:

    Anne, that’s a wonderful memoir. You’re lucky to have had such a varied and sociable environment when you were growing up. In contrast, mine was quite isolated.
    By the way, this is the first time for weeks that I’ve succeeded in connecting to your blog!
    Previously, no matter what I did, it would not open. Have you done something different with your server?

  7. Mark says:

    I love reading what you share
    You made my evening.
    When I was growing up
    everyone would come by my grandmother’s
    for dinner.
    I loved it.
    Home made ice cream, running barefoot in the yard.
    Now I am back home in the small cottage I built at the
    edge of the woods. Everyone I felt close to has died.
    Children visit monthly – but everyone is busy.
    Just not like it use to be.
    Wonderful memories…


  8. Hattie says:

    Growing up as isolated as I did, I always dreamed about big family gatherings and having the neighbors over.
    Now it is a great delight to me to have house guests, neighborhood parties and (as I did last night) have couples with children over. Sometimes it’s slapdash and sometimes I pay a lot of attention to cooking but always fun.
    A regular Sunday event seems like a great idea. I’m going to talk it over with a neighbor and see if she thinks this might not be a thing for us to do.

  9. Freda says:

    Sorrow, grief and anger all go together, but what is most important is for people to come together at special times to share and to speak of memories and make new ones.

  10. Dick says:

    This vivid account reminded me so much of my own upbringing. Parties, drink and dinner, were frequent at home and my parents’ extraordinary capacity for gathering people to them meant that the company was always varied and lively. Thanks for this, Anne.

    As for assholes like Tom Wyman, may misery attend them all. Gratifyingly, the old saw that it’s lonely at the top is good and true!

  11. Even the unruly children, gobbling Inuit Pies came to know your aunt as the consummate hostess. She took all such duties in stride. I have never forgotten the morning she yawned and reluctantly declined some more usually pressing pleasure (like shopping for shoes in Filene’s Basement) because she was expecting forty Texans to tea.

  12. K says:

    I remember hearing about those lunches at Aunt Clare’s when I was in college. Your fabulous memories sparked some of my own.

    My old school Italian mother only knew how to cook for large quantities of people and she mostly only cooked on Sundays. There were large pans of lasagna, bowls of Italian sausage and delicious meatballs, marinara from scratch, homemade garlic bread with fresh cut parsley and grated parmesan cheese, soups, sangria and cannoli (I’ve yet to taste anything that compares).

    It was wonderful and we had many friends on that day of the week. They all wanted to come over. The food was supposed to last us through the week but our friends usually had it devoured by Monday and then fed us bagged lunchmeat sandwiches on white wonder bread in exchange to get us through the weekdays.

    One had to be careful not to bring over wild critters because if they did it might end up in next Sunday’s sauce. What happened to my brother’s turtle? Or the octopus I saw in the cooler? No wonder I’m a vegetarian at heart!

    What nice memories to snap me back from an arduous week in the hospital that ended today with my father passing. It’s terribly sad to see him go. I want him back here, healthy and puttering around his place, sitting at his desk, living his quiet little life. But that is not to be and I am 50 and this is the first death in my immediate family so I feel lucky. He would have been 81 in ten days so I guess he lived a long life and had more friends and family on the other side to visit. I’m happy for him, even if I cry.

    Thank you for your memories. I love how they ease my mind into gentle places.

    I hope you are well.

  13. wisewebwoman says:

    The dung of a 1000 camels land on the roof of Tom Wyman’s house. So there.

    I loved your recollection of those Sunday lunches. We all get our knickers in a twist, don’t we, when it should all fall into place like it did when we were younger and carefree.
    You have inspired me to hold the biggest potluck when I get back to NL, they are so little work, really, and everyone loves to bring….

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