You’d think it was the big things you’d notice at the first dinner party you’ve thrown, indoors, in over a year. What am I talking about? Not just the first dinner party. The first anything indoors that involved anybody besides my wife and me and our strenuously tested children on their occasional visits. Our party, last Saturday night, also coincidentally marked the one-year anniversary since the last dinner party we were invited to.
A word of thanks to the children. They seemed more concerned about our health than we were. I don’t recall being that worried about my parents’ well being. Then again, we’d never had to face a pandemic together. But our kids were even more diligent about social distancing, mask wearing and other plague-related rituals than we were. I’d never felt so breakable or coddled. I just hope their devotion is a harbinger of things to come when we’re authentically old and decrepit.
This was a modest, welcome back dinner party consisting of my wife and me, our daughter Lucy --up for a few days to tap our maple trees -- and three guests. They weren’t just fully vaccinated, having received both shots, but also past the two-week threshold when strong immunity is said to kick in. Besides, they hadn’t been interacting with anybody outside their pods anyway. Lucy had also recently tested negative.
We’d socialized with all of them during the pandemic but only outdoors. So welcoming them through the front door felt momentarily awkward, our affection mingling with now habitual wariness, with a vague feeling that they were intruders. Then we exchanged hugs. That felt good after a year of elbow bumps, if even that. The hugs also felt a physical icebreaker, not that one was necessary. The reason people are close friends is because the closeness is understood. While touching is instinctive it’s not compulsory.
Lucy had been in charge of dinner – slow-cooked beef short ribs from Kinderhook Farm for a cold winter night – while Debbie made a chocolate cake. It wasn’t anybody’s birthday or a holiday but the occasion seemed one that required a celebratory cake, preferably with a candle.
My contribution, beside bringing the brie to room temperature, was to guide any guests who so desired on a tour of my modest collection – make that two bottles – of single malt whiskey. Nonetheless, it felt like exercise pouring drinks for anyone other than myself for the first time in a long time.
But what brought the strangeness and trauma of the last twelve months home was when we adjourned to the living room and the fireplace for cocktail hour. I found it hard to concentrate, not that the subject matter was especially challenging, because two conversations were occurring simultaneously. Debbie and our friend Susan, seated on one couch were talking among themselves while the other four of us were engaged in a separate conversation.
It had been so long since I’d experienced anything that could be described as cocktail party chatter, or crosstalk, that it felt confusing. You weren’t sure where to direct your attention.
Debbie said she’d enjoyed setting the dinner table, and a lovely job she did, the china and silver, not to mention the chandelier and abundant candlelight a nice change from eating dinner in front of the TV. I typically make a toast on such occasions but I didn’t on this one, leaving the task to our friend David and to Lucy.
I rarely turn down the opportunity to be the center of attention, however briefly – I’d go so far as to say my friends expect it – but I didn’t feel the need to do so on this occasion. A toast felt implicit, almost redundant. The incontrovertible fact that we were gathered around a dinner table, unmasked and unafraid, enjoying each other’s company and the reflections of candlelight on glass, the portraits of my mother and grandmother gazing down on us approvingly, felt ceremony enough. If anything, saying grace might have felt more appropriate.
I suspect that’s also why Debbie forgot to plant a candle in the chocolate cake before she served it. While we were celebrating there was also a certain reserve to the occasion. There has been much loss over the last year. Not just of life but also of the rituals, the small kindnesses that make us human. Reacquainting oneself with them is a process, something you slip back into gradually rather than all at once. It’s not the stuff of boisterous drinking and dancing but of soft conversation and thanksgiving.
All of that will surely return and with it the spring as well. But for a starter dinner party I think we all did a pretty good job. The food was excellent, the company too, and everybody was well on their way home by eleven. Just staying awake past ten these days feels an achievement.
Let’s everyone get vaccinated and the variants defeated. Because we stand ready to accept invitations to the homes, birthdays, weddings, bar mitzvahs and Fourth of July celebrations of friends of all ages.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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