Porch parties

Jul 01 2019 | 03:58 AM

I can see them, my mom and dad, framed at the top of the stairs: Mom in her iridescent green gown and matching heels, and was there some sort of cape involved? Dad in his cummerbund and cufflinks with his initials. Going out to a black tie thing. They looked like movie stars, smiling down on me smiling up at them. And I wanted no part of it.

The black tie circuit was akin to a sport in the rarefied Westchester suburb where I grew up, and my parents made a good team. But I knew from forever that I didn’t have what it took. These things required polish, both literal (for the silver) and figurative: the gift of gab, the capacity to sit for long stretches with my legs nicely crossed, any interest at all in politics. I dreaded becoming a grown-up.

Now I am one. I’m 37, the age my parents were when they descended the stairway larger than life, wafting the scent of Chanel #5. I do own a black dress that I can pull out in the rare contingency of a black-tie thing, and once in a while it’s a kick to put on lipstick and see my daughters giggle and squeal that I look like Mary Poppins—I hope they meant the original, but either way it’s possibly the best compliment I’ve ever gotten. Still, getting home and kicking off my heels and collapsing into bed entwined in all those little limbs is far and away my favorite part. Free at last.

But it’s okay. I haven’t had to become an alcoholic or a hermit because I turn into a pumpkin at 10:30 p.m. As I’ve passed the mile markers of adulthood—child, house, more children, graying temples—I’ve realized for better or worse that there’s no manual. Being a grown-up means you can do whatever you want. Or not.

You don’t have to “entertain.” You can just hang out. Forget keeping up with the Joneses, you don’t even have to clean your house before inviting them over, I’ve come to realize: just give the porch a sweep. Which is a relief, because if we waited until we had time to clean before we had friends over, we’d be lonely. A sit-down dinner? Stressed just thinking about it. Beers on the porch swing? Heck yes.

We had some friends over recently on the spur of the moment on a Sunday. They came in waves. The girls, ages 3 to 8, ran around hula hooping and hide-and-seeking and eventually got inspired to drag most of the bedding in our house across the lawn and into the playhouse to make the coziest clubhouse of all time. Kai, 6, who has more of the natural hostess in her than I, adorned the playhouse entrance with a pair of potted geraniums. Every now and then I brought out snacks or juice, but mostly we grown-ups ignored our progeny, screened from their sight by a tangle of feathery wisteria bines. We rocked and swung on the porch, talking lazily.

I didn’t have much in the way of food in the house, and holding the baby made it slow to get anything together—plus I wanted to be outside with my friends, not in the kitchen. So I put out rice cakes and peanut butter and honey for DIY sandwiches; carrot sticks and a peeler and a tub of hummus; a bowl of kiwis and a knife; ice and a bunch of seltzers. It was about as far as you can get from my mom’s signature hors d’oeuvre, an apple sliced into the shape of a swan. But it was good enough. Conversation kept right on as carrot peelings curled off the porch, getting snatched up by happy chickens. Just as we were getting toward the bottom of our provisions another family showed up, bringing cheese and crackers and beer. After a summer rain shower—which the girls waited out in their luxuriantly cushioned clubhouse—I padded barefoot into the garden and harvested a handful of peas, the first of the season, and handed them around.

The house… my mom would not have liked guests to see it in its state, the floor carpeted with toys and Cheerios and markers who’d lost their caps. But my mom is gone and her monogrammed silver too, and in her wake the knowledge that time is short and oh so precious.

I know, Ma, it wouldn’t kill me to vacuum, and I could easily up my game on the food front—at least toss some cut up veggies into your pretty crudité dish. But I’m getting it now, getting you, more and more each day I walk this path in your footsteps. I’m getting it, and sharing it too: your instinct to press pause on the endless task list that comes with feeding and cleaning up after three kids on top of working full-time, to grab your scissors and go out in the yard and kneel down to cut a few peonies (aren’t they outrageous?) to arrange as a centerpiece, around which friends will gather.

“Wasn’t that breathtaking?” you’d say after a good party. It was.