Yesterday was my 59th birthday, and the party was impromptu. At two in the morning Wednesday, the inspiration had hit me: I would send e-mails to people I would like to see; tell them I planned to be home on Sunday from 4 to 9; and propose that they drop in, or not. There were only two rules: no gifts and leave when I tell you. I sent about 40 messages, then helped Katie get the house ready for the arrival of the Magi.
My party was as impromptu as my wedding. Katie and I knew each other for twelve years before we started dating in 1984. After dating for four months we decided on a Monday to get married on Saturday. Whereupon I called my mother and asked her if she and Dad were doing anything on Saturday morning, early, about 8 am. She said:
“We were planning to play tennis.”
“Can you break your date?”
“What did you have in mind?”
Poor Mom had no idea.
Setting aside the usual stresses that hosts experience when preparing for a party, and ignoring the inevitable frost-heaves on the matrimonial highway that such stresses can throw up, Katie and I actually had a pretty good time getting ready for the party—which included a soothing stop at Dick & June’s, our favorite ice cream spot. At 4pm I sat down in my favorite chair with a favorite book and waited. I thought I would be pretty cool about it, but by the time the doorbell first rang at 4:28, I already was not half as popular as I thought.
The first arrivals were an elderly couple bearing pierogi, a Polish delicacy that would later be acclaimed the gastronomic exclamation point of the evening. The next arrivals surprised me. Not that I hadn’t invited them, but in all my imaginings of the odd concussions likely to take place when friends from different sectors of my life came face to face, I had not factored in my Venezuelan-born doctor and his lovely children. They proved to be the light of the party for the next 90 minutes.
That’s partly because my guest list of 40+ seemed to be a long roll of regrets as late as 5:45. Then, in about 30 minutes’ time, we ran out of room. Not that there weren’t other “party spaces” carefully arranged in advance by Katie, but at 6:15 we had about 30 people wedged onto our patio, together with a cooler filled with beer and wine, a refreshing jug of Mrs. Tindall’s Punch, a monstrously flaming grill, and plenty of pierogi. I think the surprises began about this time. Because when you leave it to the Lord—as I had by inviting people who have nothing in common except my affection for them and then sitting back to watch what happened—life fills up with surprises.
First there was the elderly gentleman and first arrival (EG/FA). I was sitting inside with a great friend, a good guy I’ve played some so-so golf with (the patio was just not big enough by now). In came EG/FA and sat down, weary, breathless. Oh no, I thought, EG/FA is sucking oxygen and my golf buddy came here to blow off steam. EG/FA and WGB (Webster’s golf buddy) did not seem to have much in common. Separated by 30 years of age and several brackets of income, I figured they would be unlikely to run into one another anywhere else, and I wondered, with the paranoia of an amateur host, How is this going to work?! It worked like a charm: Both hailed from the same small town in upstate New York. (I had no idea.) They spent the next 90 minutes topping each other with stories of 1962 state championship football teams and the arcana of small-town politics. When EG/FA staggered out on his cane, WGB kindly, slowly helped him carry the pierogi pan to his car.
Then there was the Korean-American seminarian (helping out in the parish this summer) and our next-door neighbors, whom I have always had a fondness for but never reached out to in 25+ years of living on either side of the lilac bushes. How did they ever end sitting together?! But Betty (one of the neighbors) ended talking engineering (her job) with Kwang (the seminarian, a former PhD candidate in ocean engineering at MIT). Katie’s jaw dropped, eavesdropping on this one.
By 7:30, or about the time the Case of the Purloined Yankee Banner had been solved (long story involving Father Barnes, Kwang, and CL pal Vangie, not necessarily in that order), Katie and I were exchanging happy glances and eye-rolls. Then in about 15 minutes between 8:30 and 8:45, just as the main crowd was moving on, three members of our School of Community arrived individually, and from 9 to 10, or an hour past my bedtime, we had at least the quietest if not pleasantest hour of the evening: Katie, and I, with members of the Beverly CL mafia.
I am not doing the evening justice. But I need to get back to work here, so this will have to do. I am left with an amazing gratitude for the friends in my life—as mismatched as they may be—and the good Lord who puts them there, in exactly the order He chooses.
Maybe this is what Fr. Julián Carrón means when he writes: “The ‘wholly human’ consists in what is open to totality. . . . Everyone can verify how he faces the signs that the Lord is making happen. . . . Whoever follows what the Lord is making happen before our eyes, blossoms . . . ”
(Note: The picture adorning this post was not taken at yesterday’s party but at another midsummer birthday about five years ago. It shows a much younger me with our two beautiful daughters, who sadly could not join us yesterday from New York or Argentina. Just shows you that the miracles you hope for don’t necessarily come true, but if you remain open and accept what life brings, there will be surprises.)