|[Mother and me, 1950]|
My mother was not the kind of woman who could chat easily with strangers or charm other people's children. She would not have survived as a social worker, therapist, or nurse. If she had belonged to a church that equated righteousness with personally comforting the deranged or the homeless or the dying, she would probably have changed denominations.
I tell you this only to point out that hospitality has many faces.
My shy mother did have close friends, and she was known in our small town for her unrelenting hospitality. During my grade-school years when my father was president of a small college, she invited faculty families to dinner nearly every weekend. It was the late 1950s, and the dinners were pretty formal: white Quaker Lace tablecloth, Noritake china, and Community silverplate. Stemmed goblets filled with Hawaiian punch and ginger ale. Individual Jell-O molds with dabs of mayonnaise. A centerpiece. The amazing thing is that, with virtually no help (my father and I were useless in the kitchen), she managed to make all the hot foods finish cooking at the same time.
This was hospitality, to be sure, but her company dinners are not what impressed me most about my mother's approach. Back in the 1950s and 60s, I've learned, most American social occasions were one big Noah's Ark: you came in pairs or not at all. I did not realize that at the time, because it wasn't the way my mother operated. She had friends whose husbands got sick, or left them for other women, or died. These friends were often at our house. Sometimes we all went out and did things together. I never gave it a second thought.
Years later several of my mother's friends told me that once their husbands became unavailable, most invitations dried up. Couples they used to go out with stopped calling. For a time my mother was just about their only friend who continued to have them over for dinner.
I was dumfounded. It had never occurred to me that the death or desertion or illness of a spouse would make a mid-20th-century American woman a pariah. I thank my mother - a tall, reserved, possibly distant woman - for keeping me ignorant of such heartless behavior. And I thank her for giving me a lesson in hospitality by treating her hurting friends with such dignity that even her daughter had no idea she was doing anything unusual.
This is part of a series of short posts especially for people who attend St Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, IL, where I'm leading conversations about food on September 22, September 29, and October 6. I'll post about food every weekday between September 16 and October 4.