I’ve never known my mother to be a sociable person. Ever since I was little, she has been defined by her reluctance to socialize, a hesitance to host — the term conjuring up for her stale and oppressive memories of her own mother’s compulsive formality. We’ve always had a cabinet full of fine china that remains perennially unloved; shelves stocked with glassware that serves no real purpose; sterling silver compotes, pitchers, butter dishes all existing for the sole purpose of occupying space that would otherwise be left empty and unaffiliated, vacant cabinetry filling our dining room like upscale moving boxes no one has the heart to throw out. But my mother is at her best when she’s socializing, especially with her sisters, catching up over old memories they resurrect around the dinner table, their laughter contagious even though none of us can quite wrap our heads around what they’re talking about. (Which aunt was it? She lived where? On whose side?) It’s that sense of ease that I associate with entertaining, that I take to be the goal of a party well thrown: a sense of camaraderie that can bury ill-will and crossed wires, and that allows new friendships to form and new connections to be made — preferably over lots of wine into the wee hours of the morning. (Or, once your parents are in their 60s, into the twilight hours of the early evening.)
Last year, when I went home for Christmas, I insisted on setting the table for dinner. I pulled out our mismatched linens and a few not-quite-the-right-height vases and started poking, prodding and arranging while my father cooked, wary of foisting my ideas of propriety down anybody’s throat before we’d even had appetizers. It’s not that I want the dining table to be restrictive, a place where manners trump mood, but I want it to be more than it is, as much as it can be — a special place for a special night, at least once a year, where we can associate “entertaining” with actual entertainment. We had my aunt and uncle over for the occasion; while everyone noticed the decorations, I still felt like a kid asking for a gold star. My efforts weren't in vain, they were just beside the point. This year I was lucky — and my parents might consider themselves lucky, too — to be able to take my more extreme impulses to a different stage, one where my family wouldn’t be directly affected. I was asked to host a dinner party this season by a nice group of people with a nice new line of dishes that are meant to be eaten on, not stashed away or used so sporadically that it’s easy to forget they exist. I got the chance to carefully consider every detail of the evening, from the florals for the 21-foot table (for which I requested they make a custom linen table runner, which they obligingly did) to the 20-plus-person-strong guest list. In the weeks leading up to the event, I fretted and fidgeted in a way my mother would loathe; the party perversely offering me a sort of cathartic Stepford-ian high to which gay men and Gwyneth Paltrow are uniquely susceptible. I found a sense of purpose in the pageantry, a calling to some higher majesty that eluded my mother — like Ina Garten had taken me under the wing of one of her signature blouses and anointed me in EVOO.
In the end, everything went swimmingly, owing almost entirely to the mix of people; everyone appreciated being in good company and getting the chance to take a moment with and for each other. (It should be noted that there were almost no phones at the dinner table, not by mandate but by choice.) When Christmas rolls around in a couple of weeks, I will be back at home, back with my family at the dinner table. We’ll catch up over tarnished silverware and drink decaf coffee out of quaint cups that belie our shared addiction to caffeine. If all goes well, we’ll pack it all up and do it again one year later, when it's once again that special time when we’re at our best: eating, laughing, entertaining, and entertained.