On my first trip to Europe, I acquired a set of 12 white Jacquard dinner napkins made in Belgium. These were on my shopping list because a southern friend of mine with a well-appointed household kept a closet filled with starched linens to accompany any occasion from Friday night cocktails to an impromptu wedding reception for 80. Though I was in my twenties and didn’t know a dozen people who’d be interested in joining me for occasions requiring starched white napkins, I knew the day would come when I’d need nice things. Since I happened to be standing in a linen shop, I might as well pick out some terrific napkins.
I eventually bought a house for similar reasons: a day would come when this house, impractical for most people, would provide the perfect backdrop for entertaining. I loved that house from the moment my friend Carolyn took me inside to see it. I made an offer first thing the next morning and was redoing it within the month. When I put it up for sale after a few years, I quickly realized the layout was impractical for younger families who want multiple bathrooms rather than one enormous chamber with vintage 1930s tile and separate grottoes for tub, toilet and shower.
Younger buyers are not interested in secondary bedrooms wallpapered in silk, and they do not understand the benefits of a kitchen hidden behind a swinging door so that the guests in the 600 sq. ft. dining room don’t have to see the mess that goes into preparing memorable events.
I almost neglected to mention the arched French doors with panes of wavy glass, separating the dining room from the formal living room.
I finally had the perfect setting for one of those special occasions, and I still had those perfectly preserved white napkins. As a musician, I joined the local music society, quickly discovering that I was one of the youngest members and among the able-bodied. Co-hosting one of the nine meetings a year was mandatory. Co-hosting was meant to ease the burden since it was assumed one person would provide a venue, seating, logistics, coffee and tea while the other co-host brought the dessert for the social hour.
I was assigned the February meeting, and a very sweet member told me that she would bring two cakes on the appointed day. Since we were scheduled for the second Saturday of the month, she hinted that I should come up with something for Valentine’s Day. The program chair had lined up a local soprano to sing love-themed songs, so I rolled my cynical eyes and racked my brain to think of love and romance for a group comprised mostly of elderly widows who hadn’t been passionately kissed since the Watergate hearings.
I got out a set of antique dessert plates, my best flatware, the white napkins from Belgium, of course, and put out a centerpiece of a dozen roses, leaving a spot for the cakes. While I was welcoming people through the front door, my co-host was bringing her desserts through the back. I’d told her to go ahead and put them on the table before joining us for the program. It wasn’t until I excused myself during the last number to make sure the coffee was brewing and the water for tea was coming to a boil that I saw two red velvet cakes looming near those white napkins from Belgium.
The meeting was adjourned, the French doors were thrown open and a dozen guests poured into my oversized dining room. I’d purchased the house from an elderly, childless woman who had been rather reclusive for about 30 years. I’d already hosted a fund-raising dinner for 50 and a few smaller parties, and the music society was equally anxious to get a peak inside.
Plates in hand and coffee cups precariously balanced too close to the rims, the social hour began. One group disappeared toward the bedrooms to explore the back half of the house, a few lingered in the living room to debate the originality of the fireplace, and a Mrs. H. wandered between that group and those huddled in the dining room as she left a trail of crumbs like Hansel and Gretel in the forest.
One tries not to notice and just hopes the rugs can stand up to FD&C Red No. 40 when ground into the fibers by a low black patent leather pump under the strain of ample girth. I quickly gave up worrying about the rugs when I noticed Mrs. H. and her three friends digging into second and third pieces of cake. Each had worn a vibrant shade of red lipstick from Vermilion Vixen to Rousing Raspberry Passion, and each seemed to have firmly blotted on the Belgian Jacquard prior to wiping unexplainably messy mouths between each bite of burgundy cake.
Since I did not have a coach’s whistle around my neck, I was able to bring the afternoon to a gentler close, thanking everyone for coming and telling them I’d see them at the next meeting. I sent my co-host home with the assurance that cleaning up would be a breeze, and wasn’t that clever to think of red velvet for Valentine’s!
As I laid the linen casualties out for pre-treating and bleaching, it looked as though I’d attempted to wipe up a double homicide. While drenching the fabric with heavy doses of Shout, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene came to mind. That’s the scene where she relives the night of Duncan’s murder and cries “Out damned spot! Out, I say! . . .Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”
It might have seemed an incredible amount of blood to Lady Macbeth, but it was probably too much red velvet cake.
© 2017 by Patrick Brown
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