Our house was full this past weekend, our kitchen swelling to the brim with bodies and laughter and food, and our entire silverware supply completely used up for the first time in a long time. In an attempt to up our gathering game, I sent out a text early in the week to four families we’ve never brought together, inviting them to dinner. I casually mentioned it to Brett the day before–“So, forgot to tell you, a few people are coming to dinner tomorrow night”–yet he knows better and raised an eyebrow. “A few?” he asked, “like what do you mean by a few?”
“Like, you know–a few…21, 22 maybe?” I answer, as if I have no idea. “That’s with kids, of course. It will be fine, I’ve got everything under control.”
“Just promise me one thing,” he requested. “An hour before everyone gets here, please don’t–”
“Turn into a raging bitch?” I finished for him, laughing. Because I know myself well and have far too many times left things to the last minute when entertaining and, twenty minutes before people arrived, legit snapped: “God, can’t you, like, empty the garbage or something? Why aren’t you helping me? CAN YOU GET THESE KIDS OUT OF THE KITCHEN, CAN’T YOU SEE I’M FLIPPING OUT HERE?!” It doesn’t help that he, on more than one occasion, has chosen “empty the refrigerator of every spoiled leftover container and stack it next to the sink” right before people arrive as his helpful contribution. However, I feel for him, I do.
“It’s totally low key, babe,” I assured him. “Don’t worry.”
It’s just that I’m craving gathering a lot lately. Perhaps it’s this middle place. Or fall. Or living hundreds of miles away from my family and calling home to hear they’re all together. Whatever it is, I think community is a critical tool for surviving the middle years, and it’s not going to foster itself.
As a kid growing up in the church, we called it fellowship. There wasn’t a week that went by that we weren’t gathered for some kind of holy fellowship–bible studies, potlucks, church events where parents huddled in living rooms drinking Faygo pop out of Solo cups while kids ran wild in basements or, in the good Midwest months, played Kick the Can outside. Speaking of church potlucks, can we tangent for a short moment here to pay homage to the lost love of mayonnaise in the cherished Dish to Pass? Our church kitchen refrigerators were mainly empty, give or take some leftover fermented grape juice from a few communions ago, but there was usually a wholesale-size jar of the holy ingredient to all church potluck meals–mayonnaise. Church gatherings were halls of fame for mayonnaise–cups of it stuffed into every dish-to-pass that lined the fellowship hall banquet tables–tuna noodle casserole, chicken & rice casserole, pasta salad, potato salad–even the weird jello salads on the dessert tables had mayonnaise in them. And there was always a giant vat of mac & cheese for the kids –generic, of course, its blandness only slightly jazzed with a few shakes of salt and some cut-up hot dogs. It probably had mayonnaise in it too. There is no doubt my aversion to mayonnaise has some roots that dig back many years.
We skipped the mayonnaise this weekend and opted for soups and cornbread but kept the “dish-to-pass” tradition because I’m learning that gathering with people we love happens more frequently and freely when I loosen up and let go of having to have everything perfect. Like maybe skip the fall-hued cloth napkins and orange garnishes on the glasses and instead aim simply for “I’m so happy you’re here; what can I pour you to drink?” Or, in the case of this past weekend when my friend pulled out the angel food cake she brought for the kids and asked if I had any little dessert plates, my lowered standard response: “Can’t we just lay it in the driveway and yell for the kids to grab a chunk and run?” Three kids in and I’m finally learning.
I do know that it felt so good to end a week that depleted me, filling myself back up with a simple scan of my kitchen and the love that filled it that night. And somewhere between lighting the last candle before the doorbell rang and clapping to the music from the dance party that erupted in the living room several hours later, I thought about how necessary this is in this stage of life. Before kids, “gathering” took up a sizable chunk of our life’s pie chart, and yet all we had to support each other on was where we were registering for our weddings and how to get our men to watch chick flicks with us. We gather less now–too busy, too tired, too stretched–and yet we’re in deep here, our stories, joys and challenges expanded into complicated webs that keep us up at night. The world is bigger, our worries heavier, and we need our people to soften the blow and remind us–in music, in candlelight, in Thursday morning brunches, in Friday night living room dances, in stories that make us cry and laugh and relate–we’re in it together.
Want to up your gathering game? Bring your community together? Plan a Friday night dinner? A few things I’ve learned that help:
1. Be Spontaneous. Think of a few friends you’d like to have over, and send a text invite. Right now. “This Friday night free? Dinner at our house!” Don’t think about it too long or you’ll back out, waiting until you finally paint the dining room or clean the basement or have a week with nothing to do so you can plan something big and fancy to be remembered. Send the invite so the deal is sealed. You can go as casual as ordering pizza and pulling out a few decks of cards or pump up the ambiance for a more festive evening (see #2). Either way, it’s the company and the memory that matters. Besides, anything that didn’t get cleaned up before people arrive can always be tossed into a laundry basket and put in a closet to be sorted later. I mean, not that I’ve done that, but I know people who have. :o)
2. A Good Dinner Playlist and Candles are Magic. I don’t care if you’re in a crappy apartment scooping take-out pho onto paper plates, you can create a homey atmosphere and a hospitable vibe if you dim your damn lights, put some candles out and turn on appropriate dinner music. Pandora stations we love for dinner guests: Madeleine Peyroux, Nat King Cole, Amos Lee, Diana Krall, Leon Bridges, Norah Jones or for more folksy tunes, Priscilla Ahn, Louden Wainwright or Brandi Carlile.
3. Shell Out Some of the Work...especially if you have kids and having people over is a bit intimidating. An invite alone and offering your space for a fun evening is a treat in itself for your guests. Don’t feel bad to ask your friend to bring that great salad she makes or a dessert for the kids or a yummy appetizer. If your budget is tight and it keeps you from entertaining, consider asking everyone to bring a bottle of wine to share or taking turns to host a meal.
4. Start Easy. Planning a full dinner with complimenting sides and different cook times can be daunting. The easiest thing to make that serves a lot of people and doesn’t create a lot of mess? A big pot of soup or chili with salad and bread (throw it in the crock pot to make it even easier!). You could always use up that mayonnaise and go the church potluck casserole route, of course.
5. Feed the Kids First. The best thing that worked last weekend? Let the kids eat first. I baked a pan of ziti for the kids, and we shelled out their food and let them enjoy their own pow-wow at the table while we sipped drinks and ate appetizers. When they finished, they all headed outside to play while we cleared out their space and reclaimed it for–gasp–a dinner where we could hear ourselves speak!
6. Spice up the Guest List. Instead of bringing together the same people every time, branch out. Try inviting some new people you’d like to get to know more or join two circles you think would get along great. I love to invite a “buffer” when doing this–someone who you know is great at talking to everyone and bridging the gap with good conversation.
6. Let Go of Control. You brought everyone together, now relax and have fun. You know where I always have a hard time with this? The guys. Guys don’t always jump into conversations and become friends as easy as girls do, so sometimes I babysit the situation too much. Is Brett having fun? Is so-and-so’s husband fitting in? Is it too quiet over there? Here’s what I’ve figured out: they’re grown-ass men, they can figure it out themselves. Just because they aren’t pulling their phones out to schedule pedicures together next week doesn’t mean they aren’t enjoying each other’s company.
Want some inspiration? Check out Jenny Rosenstrach’s new life/cookbook How to Celebrate Everything, full of recipes and rituals to help savor these quickly passing days. I love this quote from hers on the inspiration behind her book, referring to worrying about her kids as they are growing: “Do they feel connected to their family? Their community? Am I running out of time to figure all this out? …So here is the strategy I’ve come up with and wrapped up between two covers and bound with a Liberty-cotton flowery spine: Savor Family Rituals. Optimize Family Holidays. Celebrate Everything. And whenever possible, do all this with food, just to be sure people show up.”