How to be a perfect hostess

I had a birthday dinner for my 17 year old the other day. Hoping to make it more fun for a weeknight, I invited a friend who has an eighteen year old daughter, a very pretty daughter, who has the same birthday as my son.  She called me back and said she was bringing her father, his girlfriend and her daughter would come with two friends as the dinner was meant to be a surprise and could my son not tell her? I agreed and said my stepson, his fiancee and my ex-husband, my son's father, would also attend. We agreed on a time, she offered to bring salad, cake and ice cream and that was that. Now, I am very fond of this friend but she was close to an hour late for Thanksgiving dinner two years ago. I emphasised the importance of people being on time.

Now, my mother was a really good cook who invited people over frequently when I was growing up. Basically, she did everything with some help from me and my sisters and my father opened bottles of wine. I spent many of those occasions looking for ways to defuse the tension brought on by my mother's perfectionism. She definitely believed that every detail, ironed napkins, polished silver, exquisite food, made people feel happy. And, I think she was right. But I also think the main requirement for a happy social event is a relaxed host or hostess. I used to think the food was very significant but then I remembered many times when I'd been fed something frankly mediocre but I still had a wonderful time. There was an ease and a happiness exuded by the person who had asked me to share their table and suddenly the food seemed insignificant. I've been served bad Chile in a paper bowl and found the occasion memorable because it was fun. I've been served Oysters and Lobsters, Champagne and caviar and hated every moment because the company was unpleasant.

My pattern has been to cook something really good, set a great table, clean the house and lose my temper. Why? No one was working as hard as me. I wouldn't get that last ten minutes to apply make-up or simply relax. I'd go from slaving over a hot stove to opening the door while my clueless partner and carefree child merely waved and fetched themselves a cool drink. I'd spend the entire evening trying to get a glimpse of my face in a shiny surface only to realize I looked like hell when the inevitable candid pictures turned up on Facebook. Well, this time I decided to do things differently. I decided to enjoy my own hospitality, to realize people like to see me happy and relaxed and at my age lipstick counts as a social necessity. So I made a few simple adjustments.

First, I assumed my friend and her companions would be late and her daughter and her pals even later. They were. I made sure all the food was finished and could be eaten at nearly any temperature without damaging the taste. There were utensils and napkins but people were free to sit wherever. My son and his friend ate at the counter and then went upstairs to play music. My ex-husband, my current husband, his son and fiancee sat down at the big table and I sort of hovered between them and the kitchen. My friend turned up over an hour late with salad in a bag that had to be prepared, flowers requiring a vase and water, a massive cake and her elderly, demanding father. I was calm, welcoming, relaxed. They soon were eating, talking and everyone had exactly what they needed. When nearly an hour had passed without the birthday girl, I suggested her mother might call her so we could have cake. My husband was watching me at this point with an expression that suggested he was expecting some sort of tantrum. I remained serene. The girls arrived and were hungry but after I made them plates they did what any self-respecting girl does when confronted by food, they ate practically nothing. I dumped their meal in the garbage and offered cake and ice cream. My friend forgot birthday candles so we found some big ones.

After everyone had eaten, the elderly father asked for tea. I considered reminding him I was not a waitress but then I decided to make it while removing the tablecloth and suggesting it was time for the night to end. He asked for more cake. I gave him a piece and wrapped up a hunk for them to take home. His cell phone rang and he started to talk on it so I gestured to my friend to get him on his feet and out the door.

My husband was stupefied by my calm acceptance of the entire evening. The thing is, no one will do what you want anyway. You can get crazy and angry and then you have to apologize and your guests still won't obey you. Better to skip all that, be gracious and feel superior. Superiority and lipstick are a fabulous combination. On to Thanksgiving!


  1. You had me until the last paragraph which seems more literary conceit than truth. Acceptance, self-awareness and compassion gave you strength, not a judgemental sense of superiority. Celebrate the good you!

  2. Hmmm. The good me is so dull, really.


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