On a recent Saturday night I gave a formal dinner party for 32. That Sunday morning I hosted a brunch in the same room for some of the same folks plus a few new faces. As you can imagine, I was a little stressed in the weeks leading up to it.
Here are some of the things I was obsessed with and wrote on my "Must Do Before a Bunch of Guests Arrive" list:
Change light bulb in living room
Plant new flowers in front beds
Press napkins for brunch
Arrange guests for conversational pairs
I was frantic during the day before to make sure that all of these things were completed. And in fact, I did get to them all, and more. By the time friends began to arrive the house was spotless, and I was a wreck. When I began to pour wine for the dinner guests I poured myself the biggest one of all.
Now, did anyone come up to me during either of these events and say, "Gin, what nicely pressed linen napkins!" Or perhaps "I've never seen cleaner baseboards!" For all of the fretting and energy I put into all of these teeny tiny details I do hope someone noticed. But chances are that no one noticed at all, and it was all needless worrying and fussing on my part. I had created an image of total perfection in my mind about how I wanted it all to unfold, and focused on trying to achieve it, rather than happily anticipating a joyous occasion.
I know I am not the first hostess to feel that way, nor will I be the last. Decades of glossy images and perky articles in lifestyle magazines have lifted the entertaining bar pretty darn high over the heads of ordinary women. It dangles over us like a sword. And the fear of failure keeps some of us from ever trying.
This is not just true about entertaining, it flows into all aspects of our lives. The fear stops us in our tracks, preventing us from trying new things or working to resolve the problems at hand. We all need to move past perfect in our lives, dispense with the idea that real life will ever look like a perfectly composed photo. Sadly, this is a lesson I always remember after the fact, in the aftermath of a party. I need to work on chanting it to myself beforehand, "Past Perfect, Past Perfect, Past Perfect..."
Among the remarkably imperfect moments from those two events I hosted, the things you'd never see photographed in Martha Stewart Living or Town & Country, were these:
The moment when one guest was so animated during his anecdote that the contents of his wine glass flew all over his rapt audience. Thankfully he was drinking white wine.
The moment a floral centerpiece briefly caught fire. Who knew some of that pretty stuff is flammable?
The moment a risqué birthday card was passed from table to table; more than one gasp was heard.
Instead, what the party guests will remember is the moment when the 60-year-old birthday boy rose to speak, and after voicing just a few words of welcome his toddler granddaughter piped up and loudly announced "All done!" The old maxim about never performing with children or dogs is true. She was a hard act to follow.
We made an impression during the cocktail hour out in the "sky lounge," which is actually all of our living room furniture assembled on the side lawn so that we can fit four round dinner tables and a mess of folding chairs where the couch and coffee table usually reside. This is only possible if the weather cooperates, which it did.
What we all remember, what we all enjoy, are life's messy moments. Stilted perfection might appeal on the glossy magazine page, but would be so cold and impersonal if we were seated in the midst of it. Real life includes spilled wine, burnt flowers, chatty babies, and moving all of your furniture out on to the lawn.