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Essays: The Perfect Gift

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Today: A heartfelt story about a dinner party to honor a family member. 

Once there was an adventurous cook named Bette who, with Jim (her best friend and husband) and their six kids, threw great dinner parties. Bette taught her children to cook, encouraging them to be daring and confident. She taught them to find joy in solving problems, and to be fearless when dealing with all of life’s challenges. As the years passed, Bette’s children grew up, moved to faraway places, and hosted dinner parties of their own. 

One sad morning, Jim telephoned each of his children to say that Bette, then getting on in years, had died in her sleep. A flurry of emails and texts followed as the kids booked flights into Washington, D.C. from the West Coast and Venezuela. One daughter, Sally, who lived nearby, updated the others with the arrangements she was helping Jim to make. 

Among the plans was this: Bette had, a few years before, told Sally in no uncertain terms that when her time came, she didn’t want a morose affair with people crying. No, she made Sally promise to have a big dinner party instead, like the ones Bette and Jim had thrown years before.

For decades, Bette had filled notebooks with all her party menus. With each she included the guest list, the excellent wines Jim had bought, and notes on which silver, china, linens, candles and candlesticks, flowers and other decorations she’d used. On the back, she recorded who came and who declined, with notes on the dishes that certain guests liked or didn’t care for -- particularly useful for future planning. The day Bette died, Sally went through the menus, and Jim selected a sophisticated one with an Italian theme from a Christmas party, saying, “That just sounds like Bette.”

Dinner Party Invitations

When Helen, one of his daughters, called Jim a few days later, he was busy polishing Bette’s copper pans and would soon be dusting, as he would before any dinner party. That morning, he’d mailed invitations to their extended family -- a crowd that had enjoyed many of Bette’s elegant dinner parties. He expected 40 to 45 guests.

Sally sent another note that she was making beef burgundy for the evening after the burial. Together, they’d work through the final assignments for shopping, prep and cooking for the party.  “Great!” replied Helen. “I’ll pack my aprons and dishwashing gloves right away.”  

Prepping Vegetables

Texts and emails continued to fly. “I need to buy Italian butter cookies for the Dolce Torinese. The packages are all written in Italian and I can’t translate! What kind?” texted Sally to Helen from the grocery store, adding, “Normally, I’d just call Mom.  :-(  ” After some quick research, Helen called Sally. “I don’t have a recipe for that, but Marcella Hazan has something similar, which calls for pound cake. Mother would approve!”  “That’ll work.” said Sally.  “A friend brought by a nice big pound cake the other day. I’ll use that.” 

Sally fine-tuned the menu, taking advantage of seasonal produce, dropping the panettone and adding Bette’s special sour cream cake. As she mapped out the days ahead, Sally came to appreciate truly how organized Bette was. The only items to be cooked on the day of the party were an herbed pork roast, noodles, and a tiramisu. Everything else could be made ahead and reheated or served at room temperature. 

Wiping Mushrooms

The afternoon of the burial soon came. At the long, beautifully-set table at Sally’s that evening, siblings who hadn’t all been together for decades enjoyed one another’s company over a fabulous meal. Afterwards, Sally updated for the sixth time her timetable with who was doing what, and when, and where.

Early the next morning, three kitchens hummed as everyone worked, making tapenades, marinated mushrooms, homemade ricotta, tacchino tonnato, chicken cacciatore, ravioli with marinara sauce, Hazan’s “Il Diplomatico,” and the other desserts. They did advance prep for antipasto, as well as for numerous sides and salads. Gradually, the sadness started to lift. Working together, the kids and grandkids talked about Bette and the kitchen (and life) skills she’d passed on to them. Helen’s sister and brother laughed when she told them how happy it made her to wipe mushrooms, just the way Bette had insisted it be done. The kitchen became a cheerful place, as if Bette herself were there.

Onion Jam Crostini

The time flew by as the family made their final push. Working through Sally’s detailed lists, they ironed linens, polished silver, set up punch bowls and the coffee pot, and paired serving dishes with utensils. They hauled to Jim and Bette’s place all the food they’d prepared, along with extra pots, pans, serving dishes and other party items, and then they helped finish setting up.

What a party it was! The food and wine were spectacular. Relatives who’d come from as far away as Montreal, Cleveland and South Carolina shared stories about Bette and the parties she’d thrown over the years. Bette’s nieces and nephews -- once the youngest guests at her parties – brought their own small children. One of Sally’s daughters put out salmon cream cheese (not on the menu) for the youngsters, quietly telling Helen that Bette had always done that for her when she was little. Bette would have been so pleased.

What made this the perfect gift? At the graveside gathering, Jim told of Bette’s belief that “one played the hand that one was dealt, with enthusiasm and hope for the future.” This final request enabled her family to do just that.

Before leaving, Helen told Sally, “Mother prepared me so well for every challenge I’ve ever faced in life, but of course, she could never prepare us for her death. But then, no mother can. This, though, was brilliant. She must have known; she was so wise.” The sisters hugged. With a tearful smile, Helen continued, “Sally, please. Promise me this. If something happens to me, I don’t want a bunch of sad people crying.  I want my family to throw a great dinner party instead. Understand?” Of course, Sally did. 

Tags: Essay