– written with touches of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
I always buy the flowers myself.
And what a morning it was—the perfect day in June when the air comes straight across the foothills from the majestic Rockies. When I was doorknocking in northeast Calgary for a provincial byelection, my spirits would always lift as I drove home and saw the mountains strewn across the western horizon; starting in the deep southwest and arcing all the way around to the northwest, they hold Calgary in the cup of their foothills and keep us safe from the socialist hordes next door.
But weeks before that perfect weather descended into tumult, like a pretty girl changing her mind about the frock she’d wear to tonight’s party, I started planning the occasion: a dinner for our board members to get to know each other a little better and to raise a little cash for the Wildrose Party. What a lark! What a plunge! For so it always seems to me as I embark on one more entertaining event at our place.
For instance, the Christmas party where our younger son’s girlfriend made her debut into the Park family and into the other solitude of our sprawling confederation. It was cold. It was snowing. Inside, the house glowed with warmth—the natural-gas furnace heating every nook and cranny (My deep appreciation of this ‘easy’ heat emanates from childhood winters shivering in an often very cold house heated by coal when time and money allowed, but mostly by the big wood range in the kitchen, making the kitchen the only truly warm room; my brothers and sisters often heard the plaintive cry, “Close the door!” as I hung over the stove to hug its warmth.), the chatter and laughter of friends and family enlivening the rooms, the tree and garlands dressing up the house for Christmas. And that’s when she made her entrance, into a party in full swing among people who knew each other well and were in a celebratory mood.
Oh, the shock! Oh, the noise! Oh, the thoughts of, “What have I got myself in for?” But she smiled and said, “Pleased to meet you!” as introductions and good cheer flowed from room to room around the house. The final test was meeting a former girlfriend, who made no secret of her still lively attraction to our son. And she passed all tests brilliantly, becoming a belle fille and the mother of three of our grandchildren. Oh, the joy of another party and another year in our lovely old house celebrating Christmas just as I had dreamed it those many years ago in our big old house on the farm five and a half miles south, then west of Pelly.
Having lived in Scarboro—how many years now? almost 50—I feel a particular rush, a leap of joy when I look out our front window and see the avenue stretching to the sandstone school wearing its age with grace and gravity. Another party, this time in the summer when the neighbourhood is lavished in green and decorated with flowers in red, orange and pink, in blue, purple and mauve, in yellow, gold and lemon; the quiet broken by a plane passing over, a police siren passing down 17th, a dog barking two doors down; this is what I love: life, Calgary, this moment in June.
It’s a birthday celebration and I’ve hired a four-woman band. Their leader arrives to decide where they can set up and be protected from the rain that might fall, rain that comes sweeping in from the foothills at barely a moment’s notice and can be wild with thunder and lightning. Her face lights in surprise when she meets me because the birthday girl she expected looks much older. I beam at the compliment and we settle on the cabana, which looks out on the pool and has the requisite electrical outlets and shelter from the storm—at least enough to grab the instruments and head inside the poolhouse.
The guests start arriving, the women in summer frocks—I wore a dress of turquoise cotton with brown flowers scattered over its strapless bodice and flared skirt, then completed the outfit with cowboy boots & hat and a turquoise necklace & bracelet; this is her favourite outfit, a friend tells me, of all the hundreds I have worn over our many years of friendship—the men in Bermuda shorts and linen shirts, and the children—yes, there always must be children at the party, else what’s a family for?—in their pretty clothes over pretty bathing suits. They barely say hello before they’re stripped to their bathing suits and in the pool. To swim, to shout, to splash as much as they can, and the party begins.
Back to the Wildrose party and its planning. The invitations are chosen, written and handed out at the board meeting in May. Looking for the perfect invitation, composing the message and writing each invitation before stuffing it in the envelope and sealing it with a gold hummingbird decal, I love all that.
Then it’s the menu, starting with the main course—chicken with figs and apricots, a dish that has guests coming back for seconds, I decide—and keeping it simple with mini potatoes tossed with butter and parsley—Jack grows abundant herbs in pots climbing the steps to the deck—and a big salad made of three different kinds of lettuce, two different kinds of cheese, and vegetables galore. Then dessert, ah, dessert, which I love to make and actually eat occasionally, so I decided on two: carrot cake with cream cheese icing and an apple bourbon pecan cake to be served with ice cream. (A week or so before, I had bought salted caramel ice cream because it sounded delicious and was gushed about by all the beautiful people. Well, neither Jack nor I liked it, but I thought others might, especially with an apple dessert. And they did, assuaging my conscience by not having to throw out perfectly good food.)
The next step is dressing the table. Because it was to be dinner in the garden, the plates and glasses had to be plastic—no glass ever by the pool. So a royal blue tablecloth merry with flowers matched with a dozen royal blue and a dozen orange napkins, plates of yellow and blue and blue & white, and cutlery with blue handles. Finally, the flowers: Jack’s garden flourishing with honeysuckle, roses, peonies, violas, begonias, petunias and vines draping the white fence, the house and the brick wall; the house with fresh flowers throughout, this time red hydrangeas for the living room; pink azaleas for the dining-room table, white hydrangeas with a white Casablanca lilies for the kitchen, and purple kandy flowers in the bathroom.
And this time, that’s where we ended up on a day that went from sun to cloud to sun to cloud to sun again until it finally surrendered to a rainy, cool evening and I finally surrendered to dinner inside. The doorbell rings, the guests arrive, we talk and talk and talk, we eat heartily and laugh boisterously, we donate generously, we say our goodnights. Washing the dishes and putting the house back in order, I savour the memories of another wonderful evening in our lovely, old home.
And next time, it will be in the garden—with family from newborn to 82—at the end of July on a hot summer’s eve…