Willow Wood, Chapter 12... How to Entertain

Updated: Oct 24

The adventure of creating a home was coming to a close. It began to have that settled-in feeling: dirty dishes in the sink, books and knick-knacks filling every corner, an over-stocked pantry bursting at the hinges, the familiarity of the one window that wouldn’t open and the door that had to be fenagled to get it to lock. When you’ve finally succeeded in creating a haven to come home to, the final step is to share it.


There are different styles of entertaining, and they seem to have something to do with generational gaps. It used to be that entertaining meant a carefully planned menu, place settings, and China. But our generation doesn’t like a fuss. It’s the generation of feeling okay about wearing sweatpants to a party and choosing pizza delivery over roast beef dinner. I think it’s due to the fact that we don’t feel like we should be obligated to go to all the work of making things extravagant… and also due to the fact that we feel terrible if we cause someone else to need to go to the work of making things extravagant. We value minimal-obligation fairness. Whether that’s good, bad, or in-between is beyond the scope of this novel, but what I can say is that it makes a difference in the way you entertain.


If you are entertaining people younger than 40, it is actually not best to have a nice dinner party. It will make them feel uncomfortable. No, in our generation, it’s much better to have something simple, to start with drinks and hang out for a while, and to include the guests in the meal-making by giving them vegetables to cut or meat to grill. The only exception to this rule is that if you are going to be extravagant, it should be with people of excellent and expensive taste who are given an equal way of participating, whether that’s in bringing food or in helping prepare it, in being responsible for décor or in setting the table.


Now regarding parties in Willow Wood, this posed a difficulty, as Willow Wood is only 750 square feet. Many people have this problem, and most apartments I’ve been in are not much bigger. But does that mean you should relegate yourself to small one to two-person get-togethers? Emphatic negative!


The secret is multipurpose and moveable furniture. Everything in your house should be able to function in at least two ways, and preferably four. For example:


Breakfast nook: can function as a) breakfast nook, b) storing kitchen linens in under-seat storage, c) bench can function as coffee table and piano bench, d) buffet table, e) extra counter space, and f) plant repotting station


Couch: can function as a) couch, b) bed, c) cat scratching post (not by preference, I should add), d) coat hanger


Piano: can function as a) instrument, b) drink holder, c) small instrument storage, and d) conversation piece


This way, no matter what the event, you can adapt the furniture to your needs. Once we had a rather large open house on a cold and drizzly day in which nobody wanted to migrate outside. We shoved the kitchen island against the wall and used it as a buffet table, we pushed the couch against the wall, blocking J’s bedroom door and opening up the center of the room, and used the breakfast nook table as a dessert table. We could have fit twenty people at least. So having a small home is no reason to be intimidated away from large gatherings.


But we were speaking of making guests comfortable. The goal is to make it seem to them as if they were at their own home – to be so comfortable that they can focus their whole attention on the conversation, the movie, the card game, whatever you are doing together. But what creates that atmosphere?


Oddly enough, one thing that contributes in a major way to feeling comfortable is knowing the rules. It’s horrific going to someone’s house and not knowing whether you should take your shoes off or leave them on, whether or not you can put your feet up on the couch, if they are strict coaster-users or don’t care a fig. As a guest in an undisclosed-rules house, it’s walking on eggshells while you try to learn the rules so you don’t cause a catastrophe.


The solution to this is not presenting guests with a tome of written rules to memorize, but rather “you can” statements.


“You can put your shoes by the door.” (for goodness sake, take those filthy shoes off)


“You can use the main-level bathroom if you need to. It’s just down that hall.” (step foot upstairs in my domain and I will kill thee)


“You can look in the fridge for a drink.” (anything goes, just stay out of the pantry)


“You don’t need to use a coaster.” (Ha. Who has time for those?)


Also, permission by example. Putting your feet up on the couch lets the guests know it’s alright to do so. Setting your dishes on the living room floor lets them know they don’t need to bring them all the way to the sink. Every house has different rules, and it’s not a problem for most people, but making the rules or lack-thereof clear goes a long way in setting people at ease.


Another thing that sets people at ease is a good drink. I rather like a good beverage. It’s very important to me, so it’s a habit of mine to make sure every guest has something to their taste. Apart from immediately showing them where the glasses are, I keep an unhealthy amount of coffee around, both regular and decaf with seven different methods of preparation, twenty to thirty different kinds of tea, seltzer water, infused water, and an assortment of wines and liquors. Perhaps this is a bit extravagant… it may just be an eccentricity of mine. But drinks are a way of showing “welcome”. It’s part of a formula, you see.


“Hello, how are you! Come in, come in. You can leave your shoes on if you’d like, or kick them off by the door. Can I get you a drink?”


Tah-dah. Instant welcomed feelings.


Personally, my hosting style is relaxed. If I’ve had someone over more than a couple times, I let them know that everything in the house is fair game – fridge, pantry, cupboards – and if they want to cook something they can, and if they want to make a drink, they can, and if they want to stand on their head in the shower, they are more than welcome to. And I generally include them in whatever I’m doing. If they come over for tea in the garden, I rope them into weeding. If they come over for afternoon coffee unexpectedly, I rope them into folding laundry. In essence, they’re welcome to become a fixture of the home. But that doesn’t mean that I let them fend for themselves. The whole goal of hosting and entertaining is telepathic anticipation. To know when they have a question about something, to know if you should ask them if the temperature is too warm, to see when you should suggest migrating outside, to guess when they could use a snack or another refill, or if they need a blanket while watching a show.


It takes a great deal of forethought and work to make a home effortlessly comfortable and welcoming. Is it worth all that effort? Can’t you just hang out with friends at the coffee shop or the local hangouts?


Sure. That’s fun and it’s a way to have a great time with friends.


But entertaining and hosting isn’t really about merely having a great time. Bringing someone into your home is letting them into your life in an intimate way. A home reflects your personality and who you are as a person, it’s where you are free to be most yourself, it’s where you relax and let your guard down, and when you let someone into that space, it’s an invitation not to just have a casually great time, but to connect as people – to be real. It’s a great relief to see a someone’s realness and have the permission to be real yourself. In a world where appearance is everything and there is a constant burden of expectation that you be what you “ought” to be, it’s an invaluable gift to have a place that welcomes you as yourself.


I’m not sure we realize how powerful a home like this is. They’re so rare I’m sure some people have never even experienced it. That’s why offering someone a drink when they come over is so important. That’s why getting the proper lighting in the living room has eternal worth and value. That’s why paint color isn’t just a flippant choice and furniture arrangement isn’t just a Pinterest-addicted woman’s hobby. That’s why you infuse the house with character and a flawed patina and invest in extra coffee mugs. Because homes aren’t places to survive in – they’re places to live in.


And those places that we live in become places to bring other people into, and slouched onto a ragged couch with cold glasses of iced tea, people can connect and save each other’s lives in the thousand small ways of connecting, laughter, and being. And maybe for someone it will be that small thing that reminds them life can be so good sometimes, and maybe for someone it will give them the strength to forge ahead down a scary path, and maybe for someone it will fill their worn-out soul with hope.


And maybe when you offer them a drink, it will fill your cup, too.


Have you ever been to a home that felt even more like home than your own house does? Have you ever gathered around a hastily put-together impromptu dinner with a company of half friends and half strangers and felt as if they were family? Have you experienced the richness of conversation that comes from the open welcome of a home built on love? Have you crossed a door’s threshold and been able to set the weight of the world down for just a little while?


I hope you have.


I hope you experience it often as you go through life. I hope your own house watches it happen frequently. I know it would make it happy. And maybe decades in the future, when you’re gone and the house is empty, furniture gone, some leak in the roof gone wild and ruined a couple walls, kitchen demolished and an old refrigerator humming in the corner, some girl will come along and take a step inside the threshold and instantly know what kind of life you’d lived, because the house remembered and hadn’t gotten tired of telling the stories.


Because your home mattered.


Because you mattered.


Because the world wouldn’t have been quite right without all those seemingly small things that made up you and the home you created in your small corner of the universe.


And I hope you know that.

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