Lately I’ve been thinking about how much I love to entertain, how much I love to feed people, but hate the pressure I feel beforehand. I have to remind myself that all those witty and cultured women in Paris and London who presided over brilliant literary salons also had staff to do the cleaning and create the food. The only thing they had to do was be cultured and charming. Surely I can do that.
More lately I’ve had a house cleaner offered to me, a wonderful woman with some availability. I’ve never had a cleaner. I grew up with something called a maid. Cora came every week and had “toting privileges.” This was hardly a scenario out of The Help, but it was Maryland in the 1950s and 1960s, and "to tote” meant you could carry away as much unwanted food, clothes, and household goods as you could carry. When I first got married ten days after graduating from college, Cora was involved, but not exactly: she stayed at the house to make sure no one stole the wedding presents. Word.
Since then I’ve never felt the need for cleaning staff. Doing it myself never stopped me from entertaining. Yet I’m shocked when I discover something afterward, like fingerprints around a door handle. Where did those come from? Why didn’t I ever notice them before? No doubt the rest of the world has. They probably learned how to wipe down doors as toddlers.
Sometimes I wish I could be more like Alida. Years ago we attended a party on the Stanford White compound in St. James, given by one of the architect's descendants, a professional singer and charming personality. We’d been to a dance performance by her daughter and came back to the house afterward. It had that lived-in look. Every surface was crammed with memorabilia or papers or books or what-have-you; nothing looked to have been tidied up. I almost wept. With envy, that is. Not at the amount of stuff--which would have made me crazy--but that she was so at ease with herself and the way she lived. She assumed we would accept her as she was and everyone did.
She was right. Life is big, and messy, and you need to pick the parts you can control.
So I have choices. One is to lower my own standards, just invite as many people over as I want, whenever I want and feel totally relaxed about it. Every dinner doesn’t have to be worthy of a Michelin star (especially if you have plenty of wine). The house won't be in Martha Stewart Living.
The second option is to hire a cleaning service and have meals sent in from Mirabelle’s. But I'd need to get a job to pay for it. The last option is to bite the dust rag and clean thoroughly myself. The thing is, I have other, more exciting (to me) things I'd rather do. And I don't think I'd be very good at it.
I love the honesty of the first approach. Come for pizza! We’ll get Chinese take-out! Hope you aren’t allergic to dust! Yet there’s a part of me that’s hot-wired to do my best, to try and delight people, to turn life into a special occasion. Did I mention I love to cook? But with all that comes pressure.
So I’m seriously considering that cleaning woman (forget the euphemisms, that's what she is), and I'm waiting to find out more. I’ve checked with friends who say it will change my life, presumably for the better. Then I’ll be able to concentrate on the Port Jefferson literary salon, with dainty morsels and sparkling conversation.