Over the past few weeks I have been cleaning out the small apartment my eighty-year old mother has been living in for ten years. She's moving to an even smaller place, the guest house behind my brother's house in Connecticut, where she will be surrounded by grandchildren, but where she definitely won't be needing whatever is left of the many pieces of Waterford crystal and Limoges china she collected when my father was alive (he died twenty-two years ago, they were married for thirty) and dinner parties ruled the day. After he died my mother was left with a house that was too big and too sad for her to live in alone, filled with things she no longer had use for.
Our grey stucco house contained heaps of possessions from what prematurely became my mother's past; a life with entertaining family and friends at its center, distinguished by meals she would cook for as many of thirty guests. There would always be several courses beginning with pasta, and after dessert everyone would move from the dining room to the front hall to gather around the piano to sing. My father would belt out the Neopolitan songs he learned as a child growing up in Southern Italy. They had enough Italian friends that he wasn't the only one who knew the lyrics to 'O Surdato 'Nnammurato.
Once he was gone those affairs became nice memories for me and my two sisters and brothers. My mother would continue to have people over for dinner at her new place--the one she moved to after the requisite year they tell you to wait before making any big decisions after someone dies--but they were not the same. There was no longer need or room in her life for twenty-four Waterford crystal, wine, water, highball and lowball glasses, or the many different sets of china from Wedgewood, Lenox, and Noritake, let alone the dining room table that could fit sixteen comfortably, the crystal chandelier that hung over it, or the Persian rug below. She took the tableware and sold the most of the furnishings. I wished I could have taken some of them along with me, but I was just twenty-three, starting my own adult life in a tiny Manhattan tenement. Fine crystal and china have no place in an apartment where the shower shares space with the kitchen, a chandelier would be unimaginable. I didn't know if my life would ever accommodate such precious things. I was working as an assistant at a publishing company; my career afforded me glamour--I met famous authors, and attended cocktail parties in celebrity homes--but my salary would never provide the 5,000 square feet of living space my mother enjoyed. I dated creative types with unsteady incomes and I may have fantasized about marrying a doctor, like my father, who could whisk me a way to a life more closely resembling my mother's, but that wasn't really what I wanted.
No one could set a table like my mother; no one could cook like she did--at least to my eye and palate. I began to entertain for smaller numbers from the moment I moved into my own place. As instinctually as I knew that the water glass goes just above the knife, I was able to recognize that it's not crockery that makes a good hostess. Better than Bernadaud, my mother has wit, kindness and generosity--these are the hallmarks of great entertaining. She made delicious food, as I try to, but I'm beginning to think that the essence of a great party can't be found in the food, let alone what it's served on.
Though my life is different from my mother's I have tried to emulate her talent for entertaining. Even if I have to do it on dishes from Target and glassware from Ikea, my parties are in no way diminished. The inspiration that is part of my inheritance is grander than any goblet or tureen. My ability to make my guests feel relaxed and happy in my home, whatever kind of home that might be, never fails me. I got it from my mother, over years of watching her intuit her guests needs, filling glasses, laying out sumptuous food, calibrating the pull of the kitchen with the pull of the dining room, giving the requisite amount of attention to each.
While my mother has moved from smaller to smaller places, I've upgraded, but at the age of forty-three I am single and nowhere near as tricked out as she was at my age with five children and many more place settings. I can't say I haven't missed, even mourned the material things my situation just couldn't accommodate, but ultimately I know that those things are mere garnishes, as unnecessary as a sprig of parsley in the corner of plate. They look nice--they are nice--but they are not essential.
My mother is still full of spunk and humor, but she has less energy for laboring over courses, theses days she's the guest of honor at my dinner parties. She enjoys watching me work, trying to live up to her. I tease that I am a better cook. "The student always outdoes the master," she tells me seeing my talents as a tribute to her own. I have her gifts, even if I don't have her stuff.
Digging through what's left as I help with her latest, and possibly last, move. I am overcome with nostalgia and emotion. So much has been lost or damaged. After a while my mother stopped saving the best stuff for special occasions and started using it for every day, perhaps as a way to reconcile her past and present. I have salvaged six wine glasses, eight water glasses, and four Waterford tumblers. I may use them, I may not, but I want to keep these pieces of my history, to remember the time when my father was alive, and we all lived together in our big old house surrounded by good food and friends. I know they won't make my dinner parties any better, in fact, I find them a little dowdy. Having those glasses fill me with a range of emotions, I want to hold onto all of them.