Cocktail parties are generally imagined as frivolous and sparkly. We assume clinking, drinking, even plinking. But it’s not always so. Doesn’t everyone remember some events as more than a fête, decades down the road?
1. A Christmas Throng At Princeton University, With Mistletoe, Punch, And Football
1975. My sophomore year at Princeton, 3 roommates and I threw a Christmas party. We were 2 Texans, 2 Californians. Now that I think about it, probably all lonely in New Jersey, one way or another. We hung ironic mistletoe, strung white lights, made sweet alcoholic pink punch, and distributed invitations by hand. We cleaned our rooms, and waited.
Come the party date. Imagine gray stone steps, worn from actual centuries of students shuffling. Imagine goofy Christmas music. Imagine all those college boys, for Princeton was then a 5:1 ratio of male to female, given permission to kiss girls under the mistletoe if they asked politely. Imagine so many people that the party wound back down those same stone stairs, and overflowed out the wavy glass-paned window onto a tarred roof below.
Imagine the last guests, lingering, picking up pink-stained napkins, and watching Dallas play Pittsburgh, in the new understanding that we all had families and rituals back home. I am sure we looked like privileged youth, (someone wore a camel-hair polo coat, surely) and so we were, but also teenagers, and only recently children.
2. An Eggnog Event
1977. 2 years later, my parents’ divorce hit hard. I realize now of course how easy we had it – nobody was impoverished, the children were not deserted. Be that as it may, the first Christmas Eve of split households will always be remembered as the night Mom Went To A Party And We Four Kids Drove Around Palo Alto Looking For Ice Cream. There was no ice cream for sale.
When another Christmas came along, a few years later, the idea surfaced for an eggnog party. I am not exactly sure how or why. Perhaps a conspiracy of cream and sugar. Mom’s compact white house filled up with people. Meanwhile, some of us, dressed in party clothes, gathered in the kitchen and dumped cream, eggs, bourbon, rum, and whiskey into a large cut glass bowl. We laughed, we had no idea what we were doing. Someone wondered aloud about raw eggs, someone else said,”Salmonella be damned.” It was probably my Uncle Win, the jolly family reprobate.
We brought out a ridiculously large silver ladle, monogrammed, and small cut glass eggnog cups. We served from Mom’s low pine coffee table, in the living room with the two new tansu chests and linen curtains. I think she used wood curtain rings. It’s possible my memory embellishes. But the smell of grated nutmeg, that I’ve got right. And the remembered sense that things might be OK.
3. The 40th Birthday Affair, In A Suburban Backyard
I threw my first and only solo large cocktail party in 1996. I had asked my then husband to take care of arrangements, but reclaimed the reins when it seemed that nothing would get done otherwise. Not a happy turn of events, but I don’t remember showing outward signs of distress. Planning a 40th birthday usually brings you to a shelf of Over The Hill printed paper plates, and mournful all-black invitations. I refused to go there, proceeding Full Theme Ahead, to all Retro Suburban Heaven.
The party was adults only, a Mad Men soiree before the time of Joan, Don, and Peggy. I printed invitations with martini glasses on our home computer, stuck pink plastic flamingos in the lawn, and, because we could be grownups again, set up a full bar in the open French doors of the master bedroom. Complete with white-coated bartender. My friends had children, as I did, mostly aged 10-7. In other words, we were all feeling our parental oats – no teens, no toddlers. We could Go. Out. We could Talk Loudly. We could Play Music.
That year my family gave me party caterers as my present. Servers carried finger foods on trays. My family also gave me a new lawn which wouldn’t bear walking on, adding a very light edge of risk. Imagine 70 parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, servers, crowded together on a small, triangular patio. Festively teetering. Some school mothers got me a teak garden bench for contemplation. I sat down. The photo of me in a little black dress, seated, laughing, is shelved somewhere in my house. Much else has changed.
What did these parties share? Crowded spaces, a ceremonial aspect to the alcohol, and tough times recently endured. Light: strung and white; refracted from a crystal bowl; gilt in the slowed sun of September. A brief burst of family – left behind, broken, emergent.
They say in literary theory that every comedy ends with a party of some sort.