The All Guys Dinner Party

My son came home from college last week for Christmas break and I threw him the most wonderfully ridiculous welcome home dinner party.  The welcome home party has become a tradition since he left for college – when he comes home on vacation he likes to reinsert himself into the local social scene as soon as possible.  But for past parties we typically set up his XBox, PlayStation and/or GameCube in the family room, put some pizza and soda on the kitchen island, and let him and his friends go for it.

This year, as usual, I decorated the house for Christmas.  I trimmed the tree and hung the stockings.  I spent a whole day baking cookies.  (See previous post).  Then I went above and beyond.  I cleaned out all the boxes in the dining room (which had become a storage space since we normally eat in the kitchen), and then decorated the room.  I had my husband pull the boxes of our Spode Christmas Tree china out of the garage.  I unpacked and washed the china.  I cleaned out the hutch in the dining room so I could put the Spode away.  I went through all the linens I’ve collected over the years, and found coordinating tablecloth and napkins.  I read somewhere that it is trendy to mix and match napkins and tablecloth and china, so I was swinging for the trendy fences.

And then I went shopping.  First I went to Michaels Arts and Crafts – during the workweek, which almost felt naughty.  I felt an odd rush of exhilaration as I walked the aisles with hordes of women whose carts were overflowing with stuff, while Christmas carols blared over the sound system.  I don’t know why I found it all so amusing, but I could barely contain myself as I watched one lady, who couldn’t have been more than five feet tall and could barely see over the mound of loot in her cart, collide with a display of snow globes.  When all was said and done, the cashier refused to give me the discount on the candles I thought were 60% off, so in a moment of liberating defiance, I announced I wanted nothing in my cart and walked out the door.  (I never would’ve done that when I was working because I wouldn’t have had the time to search elsewhere).

Then I headed to Stats, which is a veritable local Christmas wonderland and superstore.  I wandered wide-eyed through the rooms of floral displays and wreaths and Santa Claus figurines. There I bought garlands and candles and pinecones.  Then I went to World Market and found napkins and rings and bowls.  After that I went to Home Goods and Pier One and Marshalls and TJ Maxx and Ross and Party City.  I don’t even remember what I found where at this point.  But I was a woman on a mission.

I even decorated the coffee table to serve appetizers. I knew the small plates and cocktail napkins would be curious to the guys but they would enjoy the extra food.

The coffee table decorated to serve appetizers. The small plates and cocktail napkins were a curiosity to the guys but they enjoyed the extra food before dinner.

And what exactly was this mission?   For goodness sake, this was a party for a group of eight to twelve 20-21 year old guys. Do you think guys that age (or any age for that matter) care whether they are sitting at the dining room table with Spode china in front of them?  Do they appreciate having a decorated house?   Of course not! In a moment of complete and utter lunacy, and which made me laugh out loud like a crazy woman, I raced to Big Lots the day of the party and bought a garland of poinsettias and a Santa yard stake because I decided the light fixture in the dining room and our front yard needed more decoration.

No, this wasn’t just about the boys.   It was about me.  For one thing, I spent the past 10 years, when I was in a senior management role, working really hard at my job and the holiday season was one of the busiest times.  I didn’t have time to plan Christmas parties and it was about as much as I could handle to decorate the house and trim the tree and buy the gifts and send out the cards each year.  I didn’t have time to savor the season.  For another thing, I want to hone my entertaining skills.  While I was busy working, my husband did most of the cooking and I have become rusty (and to tell the truth, I was never that good in the first place).  In September, just for fun, I attended a party planning class with my good friend John at a local high school. The instructor advised us to practice by putting on our own dinner party, and what better guinea pigs than a group of guys who don’t know their salad plate from their dinner plate and are happy simply having something edible placed in front of them?

With my collected merchandise, I decorated and set the dining room table.  Using my party planning class workbook, I developed a menu and a schedule for the party.   I scoped Costco for appetizers and gave my husband a shopping list for the food.  We worked together on the meal, since he is not quite ready to trust me with the keys to his kitchen kingdom.   (Probably itself another post topic.)

The All Guys Dinner Party

The All Guys Dinner Party. Notice the garland of poinsettias on the light fixture and the trendy mix of linens and china.

And was all this overkill for a group of college-age guys?  Absolutely! Did any of them make one peep about the decorations or the china or the music?  Of course not!  Did they enjoy themselves?  Enormously!   How do I know?  By the smiles and laughter I heard from the dining room as they sat around the [beautifully decorated dining] table talking to each other, and later from the family room as they played a board game and I listened in while doing dishes.  And they all thanked me before they left.  Was it worth all the work?  Totally!  Did I have fun?  You bet!  And yesterday, best of all, as I was walking out the door with my son, he asked to take a picture of me in front of the tree.  Then he wanted a picture of himself in front of the house.  After we got in the car, he showed me the “Snapchat Story” he just made.  Which is, after all, the way his generation communicates.  It was a photo of my decorated dining table with a caption that read “Ready to celebrate with friends” and then a photo of me in front of the tree with the caption “Family” and a photo of him in front of our house that read “Glad to be home.  Merry Christmas!”

The Fellowship of the Cookie

Among the things I miss most about my former work life are a few really good friends.  After working closely with some of them for over 25 years, I find myself yearning for that day to day contact, sharing the up’s and down’s of each other’s lives, and working on projects together.   When I retired, I had no doubt that I would stay in touch with my closest friends; however, I underestimated the loss of that daily contact.  It takes effort to set up lunch dates and even phone calls when no longer coworkers.  In my ideal fantasy world, I would have my own office where I would see my pals at the beginning of each day over coffee and at the end of the day to share our stories.   Sometimes we’d also have lunch.  (The time in between I don’t really want to do any work; hence, this is my fantasy world.)

Which is why last Sunday I was in heaven.   I decided to invite my former work group to my house for a holiday multi-tasking party.  I reckoned since I’m not working, I’d decorate my house early and we could bake, wrap and address cards together.   I remember being under such stress this time of year, with much to do, and my idea was to provide a festive environment where we could complete tasks together.   As it happened, because it is such a busy season, only my good friend John could join me.

The backlog of cookies that formed with just one oven!

The backlog of cookies that formed with just one oven!

But, oh, did we have fun!  John and I baked cookies together.  For SIX hours.  We planned our recipes during the course of the week and coordinated our ingredients.  On Sunday morning, we plotted our cookie strategy and then made adjustments to our project plan (oops, we forgot to take the 14 sticks of butter out of the fridge to soften) and more adjustments (oops, we hadn’t read the part about chilling the dough for several hours).  We helped each other by holding bowls and spatulas and measuring ingredients.   And we made SIX recipes together.  We talked and we laughed and we invented inside jokes about our baking adventure (“those damn pecan balls!”).   During the course of the following week, we texted gags to each other about our cookies.   Very little of our conversation was about work.

After six hours of baking, displaying the fruits of our Cookie-Palooza

After six hours of baking, displaying the fruits of our Cookie-Palooza

In some ways it was just like the old days working together on a joint project.  But in other ways, it is a delightful new relationship that transcends our work history.  By carving out a block of time for our friendship (my husband watched football in the other room while we worked and John’s partner was visiting his mother) we underscored its importance in our changed circumstances.  We did more than bake cookies together.  We created new memories and a new tradition for our friendship.

Christmas Memories

When I was a girl, the Christmas season elicited in me a pure unadulterated joy.   I could think of no good reason why anyone would feel anything but.  As I’ve grown older, though, a melancholy has crept into the Christmas season, with remembrances of loved ones that I’ve lost and seasons that are past.

This past Tuesday, I had the house to myself and I spent the morning decorating our tree.  I was thankful that I was home and not working.  I was grateful that I’ve had the extra time this year to savor the holiday preparations.  I was joyfully anticipating our son’s homecoming next week.

I put on Christmas music and opened a box of decorations brought in from the garage.   The first song that played was Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song” – one of my mother’s favorites.   A flood of memories struck me. Being the only daughter, it was mom and I that worked on Christmas preparations together and it was a cherished tradition for us both.  Even when I was away at college, she would wait until I got home to do the baking and decorating.  I lost my mom five years ago, right before Christmas.   I miss her.

Made with foil and cardboard, our most cherished and beautiful tree topper

Made with foil and cardboard, our most cherished and beautiful tree topper.

Then I began unpacking the ornaments.   We have a collection that were purchased at places we’ve visited (lovingly labeled with the date and place), or received from friends and family, or handmade by our son.  The first ornament that I placed on the tree was the topper.    This is a cardboard and foil star (held together with wire and scotch tape) that I made with my stepson the first Christmas I spent with my husband (then boyfriend).   My husband had been a single dad for a few years and for various reasons the two of them had never bought a tree.   I talked them into getting one, and then had to improvise since there weren’t any ornaments around. We quite cleverly punched a hole in the star to insert a tree light. Twenty-seven years later, I still think this is the most beautiful tree topper. Twelve years ago, we lost my stepson in an accident.   I miss him.

After I married, my parents spent almost every Christmas with us.  My mother loved coming to our house since she didn’t have to do any of the work.  My father absolutely relished his grandson excitedly jumping on their bed early Christmas morning and then frolicking around the house like a kid with him and his toys.  One Christmas my son played a duet at a Christmas piano recital with one of his little buddies, and the two got into an on-stage argument over timing.   That episode quickly assumed a prominent place in comic family lore and my dad always delighted in having my son and I play piano duets at Christmas time.  I pulled my parents’ Christmas stockings out of the box and hung them over the fireplace.  Seven years ago I lost my dad, not long before Christmas.  I miss him, too.

The Little Mitten ornament I embroidered while pregnant.  This was a season of anticipations

The Little Mitten ornament I embroidered while pregnant. This was made during a season of joyful anticipation

I unwrapped a few more ornaments from the box.  One of my favorites is a little mitten that I embroidered while pregnant with my son.   I didn’t know if I was having a girl or boy, and I waited until after he was born to embroider his name on the mitten.  I then sifted through countless ornaments my son made while in pre-school, school and Sunday School.  I loved every minute of those years with my young son and Christmas was hands down his favorite day of the year.  He has since grown into an incredible young man whom I love with all my heart, but I miss my little boy.   I miss that season of my life.

I am thankful for all the blessings that God has bestowed on me, past and present. Christmas is indeed a time for great joy.   But I am also grateful for my melancholy Tuesday morning, alone with the tree and decorations.  It proved to be an unexpected and profound time of spiritual reflection, remembrance and grief for those people and seasons that I loved.

Thanksgiving with the Melnicks

Last year we spent Thanksgiving at the home of complete strangers.  We had so much fun we went back this year.

After coming home his first Thanksgiving while away at college, our son decided last year he didn’t want to make the long journey homeward. My older brother invited us to his home in Pennsylvania, and to Thanksgiving at the Melnicks’ (names changed to protect the wonderful in this post).  My brother and Mike Melnick have been friends for over 30 years – they were co-workers and poker buddies for ages.   My brother and his family have been celebrating Thanksgiving at the Melnicks’ for over 20 years.  I, however, had never met them.

A big draw for our son was that one Melnick nephew is an Annapolis grad and a Navy helicopter pilot.  So, we accepted the offer, flew to the east coast, picked up our son and drove to Pennsylvania.

The dining tables.  The Smart Table is in the corner.

The dining tables. The Smart Table is in the corner.

When we arrived at the Melnicks’ modest 3-story suburban house last Thanksgiving Day, Mike and Madge Melnick greeted each of us by name with bear hugs and a warm welcome.  There was an enormous table in the dining room for the food.  Tables and chairs were set up throughout every other room on the first floor for over 40 dinner guests.  Each of the portable dining tables was beautifully and lovingly decorated with fall color linens, pumpkins, flowers and greens.  There were handwritten place cards attached to little straw turkeys at each place setting.  I was at first alarmed that my husband, son and I were placed at different tables (as were my brother, sister-in-law and nephew).  I was anxious when I was jokingly told I was at the “Smart Table”.  I headed for the wine bar (I’m always smarter after a glass of wine.)  I was fearful this was going to be one of those social functions where I really had to be on my game.

The lovely table decorations

The lovely table decorations

While driving to the festivities, my sister-in-law gave me the Melnick Who’s-Who briefing.   As I began mingling at the house, my head was whirling trying to match and organize names and faces and relationships.  Somewhat related to my lifelong People Magazine obsession, when I step into a room of strangers, I find it oddly fascinating to decipher connections and back-stories.  (In fact, this year after I left the Melnick gathering I charted all the relationships just for fun to test my knowledge — but more about that later.)

By the time I took my place at the Smart Table for dinner, I was ready for the challenge.  I decided to use my PSE training, a sales technique I learned on the job that works brilliantly in most social situations.  Basically, you just continue to ask question after question, the goal being to elicit as much information as possible while keeping the other person(s) talking.  I have found that the more the other person is engaged in talking, the more I learn and the cleverer he or she thinks I am.  Generally, most “smart” people love to talk about themselves.

The living room filled with dinner guests

The living room filled with dinner guests

But a funny thing happened at the Smart Table–on the way to my “sale”.  It started with the blessing and toast that Mike Melnick gave before dinner.  He wiped away tears as he spoke of friends and family.  He specifically welcomed my husband, son, and me, by name, to his home in his toast. My tablemates chuckled as they described how his toasts get longer and more emotional every year.  The people at the Smart Table were indeed brainy and accomplished and, also, really, really KIND. There were a married couple of scientists.  There was an urban planner and an architect. Somewhere around my twentieth follow-up question, I forgot about composing my next one.  I was relaxed and simply enjoying the conversation.  We talked about family and farming and books and food and history. I genuinely yearned to know more about them, and they were interested in learning more about me.  One of my tablemates was the twin brother of Madge Melnick.  He described how they and their 6 siblings grew up on a farm in Minnesota.  He explained how their older sister Betty travels every year from Texas to the Melnicks’ house to direct this Thanksgiving extravaganza.  The two sisters spend all week cooking, cleaning, decorating and laughing.  And they love it. By the end of our 2-½ hour dinner together, I was the best of friends with my Smart Table-mates.

A few times during dinner, I looked around to see how my son and husband were faring.  My husband was apparently seated at the “Sports Table”.  He sat with a bunch of other guys, an enormous plate of food before him, near a big-screen TV tuned to one of the football games.  A look of utter contentment on his face – like the cat that just ate the canary.

The first time I looked for my son, I observed he was seated next to the Navy helicopter pilot and there was a clear case of male bonding happening.  He sat in rapt attention as the pilot talked about his experiences at the Academy, post-Academy, at flight training and in his career.  Later in the evening, I noticed my son had moved.  I looked out the window and saw him run by, followed by a younger cousin, and a line of younger Melnick relatives and friends, like the Pied Piper.  It was a massive game of hide and seek.  It made me happy that my only child son was able to have some carefree family playtime.

What we experienced at the Melnicks was pure and genuine hospitality.  At the core is a large close-knit family who love being together and who delight in sharing that kinship with a growing circle of family and friends.  They went to great lengths to make us feel welcome – they even thought in advance what and who each of us would enjoy and tried to surround us with what would make us comfortable.

When Thanksgiving rolled around this year, we were invited and decided to return to the Melnicks.  We pulled up to the house and it was like a family reunion.  We got our bear hugs from Mike and Madge. Little Ella, who was a newborn last year, just celebrated her first birthday and was almost walking. The Navy pilot excitedly told us about his orders to a new duty station.  The tables were all decorated again, this time with little straw pumpkins for place cards. I was delighted to return to the Smart Table.   My husband was at the Sports Table with his old friends near the big-screen. Mike gave his toast and choked up.  It took me a little while to get all the names and relationships refreshed in my brain (revising my mental data banks for any updates) and I expanded my inquiries to unearth new levels of detail about the attendees.

That night, after we returned from Thanksgiving at the Melnicks’, and while it was still fresh in my head, I decided to jot a chart with the names and relationships of the people who were at the gathering.   Partly to save me some time next year, partly just for fun, partly to impress my husband and brother with my savant talent.  But in looking at it, I was struck that this was a family tree with a strong trunk of family relationships, but with significant and sturdy branches of non-blood, long-standing relationships (like my brother) that have become permanent parts of the tree.

I am forever thankful for the Melnicks.  During our son’s time at the Academy, it has been difficult for us to be together at home for Thanksgiving.   We considered either being separated for the holiday or eating Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant near Annapolis.  Instead, we were deeply blessed by the Melnicks with two warm and cozy family Thanksgivings that we will always treasure.  And to me, Thanksgiving at the Melnicks was a lesson in the true meaning and expression of hospitality, family and compassion that I will never forget.