The party, the painters and an empty nest

Was it just last week that I was blogging about our “Annual Open House”?

The party was fun for us, and, I trust, for our guests. We ate, we drank, we toasted, we kissed hello and good-by. We told stories and jokes. We made promises to get together more often in the New Year. Yes, it was good.

In fact, we had so much fun that I never did get a chance to snap any pre-party or party photos. I did, however, think to get a few post party shots. If tables and countertops littered with empty wine bottles, glasses and platters are any indication, this was a successful event.


But wait, the week gets better.

The morning after the party, the painters arrived at 7:30 to paint the upstairs and downstairs hallways, the stairs, the bathrooms, the master bedroom and related woodwork (which had been stained a dark walnut, necessitating sanding and priming before moving on to two coats of white paint). They’ve done a beautiful job and we love the colors and the new white woodwork. We’ve also trashed the house, emptying the master closet and the linen closet into a spare bedroom, along with miscellaneous lamps, artwork, and accessories. We can’t find the laundry. The power cord to my laptop was missing for more than a day. You know how this works. Maintaining any sense of order during a project like this is hopeless for us.

Friday, they finished up by painting the ceiling in the kitchen and family room. So, that morning we cleared the counters, took down the mantle decorations, and I took another picture of the same island countertop.


Actually, I think this picture (below) says it all. New paint job, Christmas angel and artwork re-hung in the hall amid the painters’ gear. Not the schedule I would set, but as my husband, a.k.a. “the scheduler,” pointed out, we’ll begin the new year with all this freshened up. And sometimes you just have to roll with it…


Which brings me to the second half of this post.

The holiday season always delivers an emotional mix. There is joy in the unvarnished excitement of children awaiting Santa, the good cheer of family and friends savoring the season, the music, the traditions large and small, and, if you are so inclined, the Christmas story itself. For me and for many others there is also nostalgia for holidays past.

My mother and father and my grandparents before them absolutely loved Christmas. We had no exotic traditions and some Christmases were leaner than others, but there were always festive trees and tables and visits with extended family and friends. Lots of laughter and story telling. And that is what I think of when I think of holidays past.

Steve and I did our best to carry those traditions forward with our own family, sharing the holiday with my mother and aunt and uncle, and, when they could join us, cousins, and friends. There was always a harried dash to church on Christmas Eve that ended with the magic of singing Silent Night in a candlelit sanctuary. (Never mind that my daughter once attempted a short nap in the midst of the live creche scene and my son came this close to singeing the hair of a fellow acolyte as they walked down the aisle.) And that was just Christmas Eve.

Although my mother, aunt and uncle are no longer with us, we now have a pair of grandsons who bring a whole new kind of joy to the holiday. So we travel to Ohio to celebrate with our kids there and my daughter-in-law’s family. And our traditions morph with theirs. And I am so very gad we are part of it.

Like dealing with the painters, sometimes you just have to roll with it…

Being an empty nester is not always easy. You have to learn to share your kids with their adult lives, careers, new cities and new partners. You can’t always have everyone at your holiday table or even preside over your own table. If you’re going to let change taint your holiday, well, I really think that’s your fault.

Yes, I want my kids to call me, visit me, invite me and still need me. Once a mom, always a mom. But I think my kids also deserve my respect: to live their own lives, make their own decisions, raise their own kids. (And if, as my friend Jill says, I have to sometimes bite my tongue, I can learn to do that too.)

We’ve been empty nesters for more than a decade, and I’ve come to the conclusion that to succeed in these multi-generational times, we need to bring a little more to the equation. We need to continue to grow ourselves. It’s pretty easy to get stuck in “I was…” or “We always…” when we should really be working on our flexibility gene. What difference does it make if we have turkey and all the trimmings or ham and hash brown casserole? More importantly, perhaps we need to stop worrying about the empty nest and start feathering its successor.

It’s something to think about when we’re done wrapping packages, addressing cards, baking cookies, and recalling those Christmases past…

I wish you a wonderful, joyous, overindulgent holiday however you spend it!

Unpacking the traveling wine glasses

WGlassesBoxes2Remember when I wrote about my traveling wine glasses, here? Well. Time to get them out of storage.

Every family has their own holiday traditions, and one of ours is to host an open house for friends and neighbors. This began innocently enough 40-odd years ago when Steve and I lived in Peoria and wanted a Christmas celebration at our house before we headed to Chicago to spend the holiday with family.

Then we moved to Chicago and reinvented “the party” a bit around our own young family. The kids got older, our careers got more demanding and still we hosted “the party.” In fact, it grew to include our children and those of our friends. Then the children grew up. But “the party” continued.

Sometimes people would ask how we did this with two full-time jobs and a busy family life. (By now we were also hosting the extended family holiday anyway.) I just said the party had a life of its own, which it has. And forty-odd years of parties has taught us a few things.

First, entertaining two or three dozen people is definitely a two-person project. We could not do this if Steve and I both did not enjoy it. However, when it’s “tradition,” you get to do some things the same each time. And that makes it easier.

The week before the party I start by “inventorying” supplies on the dining room table.

Our party has always been on the same Sunday afternoon in December and is a true open house. People come and go over the course of 3 or 4 (or 5) hours. I used to send snail mail invitations (I think they are fun to get), but now I send electronic invites. They’re easy, economical, and – best of all – guests seem to find it much easier to respond electronically. Who knew? We have always invited a close circle of friends, neighbors, sometimes people we wanted to get to know a little better. (This is fun. Friends from one group meet another, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.)

Our guests are the heart of the party, but they expect food and drink. Food can be complicated or simple, and I have done both. Lately I opt for simple. This is not a party to impress a client or anyone’s boss. It’s getting together with friends.

After years of busily pushing trays of appetizers in and out of a hot oven (in a hot kitchen) and missing much of my own party, I avoid anything that requires much in the way of last-minute prep. Cheese platters dressed up with fruit, olives, nuts, are go-to choices. Since guests are drinking, I like to serve something a little on the hardy side: store-bought meatballs in my husband’s burgundy sauce, beef tenderloin on baguette slices, or ham on mini rolls. (After one experience with a fairly expensive platter of shrimp that a friend’s eight-year-old planted himself beside and devoured a significant portion of, I didn’t serve it again until all the children were grown.)

I try to vary the menu a bit from year to year, and I like to occasionally introduce something new just because I get bored (so what must my guests think?). But my bottom line is borrowed from Ina Garten: buy some, arrange some and cook some.

Steve is the drinks man: red and white wine, beer, and soft drinks. Last year we found some well-priced prosecco at a wine tasting and it was a big hit. I offer coffee towards the end of the party (though almost no one ever drinks it).

Like food, decorating has grown simpler. A while back it occurred to me that the more I put up, the more I have to take down. We start on Thanksgiving weekend. (I have never been able to bring myself to do this any earlier. I enjoy that holiday too much to confuse it with any other.) I focus my decorating on a few strategic areas — the mantel in the family room, the buffet in the dining room, the tree in the living room, and some greenery and candles in the entry to welcome guests. Anything else is just frosting.

This angel greets guests in the entry. I used other angels on the mantle this year.

Did I say candles? I rely a lot on candles, tapers in every holder I have and an army of pillars. I am the lucky beneficiary of a substantial stockpile of pretty plates and platters that belonged to my mother and my aunt and I use them! (Even when I order deli platters from the grocery store, I re-plate them on my own serving pieces – casual or fancy.) A little glow, gleam and sparkle looks festive and makes guests feel special. And I think my guests deserve a bit of fussing.

2016treeI was one of the last holdouts for a fresh tree, but when we began spending the actual holiday with the grandkids in Ohio, I was uncomfortable leaving a potentially dried-out fire hazard in an empty house. Switching to a pre-lit artificial tree was a no-brainer. (Yes, it is different from those Fraser firs I used to water, decorate, and water some more, but different is not always a bad thing.) It’s easy to set up, we don’t have to string the lights on it, and I can concentrate on hanging my collection of glass ornaments.

As I’ve simplified the party I’ve realized more than ever that enjoying the time together is everything. I really do try to spend time with my guests, because that’s the whole point.

I’ve also learned that some of us like to give parties and some of us don’t. And that’s okay. But I do think your comfort level with entertaining shows. (For example, the birthday party where we all stood in the kitchen balancing paper plates of carry-out pasta while the hostess’s dining room was dark!) So if you aren’t comfortable having people at your house, if you worry about spilled drinks, tracked in snow, whatever, for heavens sake, don’t do it. Plan to meet friends at a favorite restaurant, for drinks after a play, or tailgate before the big game.

But I’m throwing a party today and totally looking forward to it.

See you next time!

Christmas in miniature

12th Century French Hall from the Thorne Collection

I know I’m a nerd, but who can resist history and design wrapped up in the charm of a miniature space?

Last week I took the train into Chicago visit the Art Institute’s miniature Thorne Rooms, a number of them decorated for the holiday season.

I have always loved dollhouses! Miniature rooms with miniature furniture, people and details that you can arrange and rearrange at will, the more tiny details the better. Add to this the historical accuracy of the Thorne rooms, depicting the interiors of upper-class homes from England, the United States, and France from the late 13th to the first half of the 20th Century. It’s impossible to ignore the precision of the miniature spaces, but it’s equally important to recognize the bits of history each displays.

English Drawing Room, the Thorne Rooms

The Thorne Rooms have quite a history of their own. Narcissa Niblack Thorne (1882-1966) created her meticulously detailed rooms on a scale of one inch to one foot. She became interested in miniatures as a child and pursued that interest as an adult. This was not uncommon for middle- and upper-class women of her time. If you have visited Windsor Castle outside London, you probably saw Queen Mary’s dollhouse, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens between 1921 and 1924.

Mrs. Thorne’s work was first exhibited in 1932. Though most exhibitions were privately held for charity, her works were publicly shown at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition in 1933. Because she was a woman of means (her husband was James Thorne, an heir to the Montgomery Ward fortune) and because she began this work during the Great Depression, when it was possible for her to readily hire highly specialized artisans, her projects flourished. Her work was in considerable demand, including a commission for a miniature library depicting a room at Windsor Castle in honor of Edward VIII’s coronation. Although the coronation never occurred, Mrs. Thorne’s miniature room was displayed at the Victoria and Albert museum in London.

More than 60 of the Thorne Rooms are now the property of Chicago’s Art Institute.
One of the charms of seeing the rooms that are decorated for Christmas is seeing how the holiday is depicted in each scene. The inspiration for this Victorian Christmas scene was a widely distributed image representing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with an early Christmas tree, a tradition the prince brought to England from his native Germany.


And I love this version of an 18th Century Virginia foyer with the kissing ball hanging from the chandelier and the greenery lining the stairs.



And then there is this one of a ladies’ dressing room in antebellum Louisiana, with tiny gowns ready and waiting for a holiday gala.


Although I am particularly drawn to the 17th and 18th Century rooms, there are a few that are quite modern, duplicating interiors from the 1930’s and 40’s. If you are interested in deign or architecture, these rooms are a lesson in both. I’m not sure if the time period matters as you work thru the glass-enclosed rooms that are arranged somewhat chronologically. I think it’s the execution of these miniature marvels that’s so enticing!

This was a fun escape, but now I’m back to decking halls, shopping, and wrapping. I’ll be back, soon because I’m unpacking the traveling wine glasses!

See you next time!