Almost every room at Thornhill is like a stage set. The chintz living room, the red library, the yellow dining room, the checkerboard kitchen. I can’t help it. And I perform the same routine when we have a dinner party. For me, dressing the dining room table is setting a scene.
This scene-setting is what I really like most about giving a party. My husband, Tom, who was weaned on the hoopla of the New Orleans Mardi Gras, loves the excitement, the action, the give-and-take of a good party. I enjoy all that too, but I’m a New England perfectionist and not so relaxed, so camouflage does help.
When we sit down at the table, and the curtain finally goes up, it’s like the first act for Tom. To him, each party is like a new production, while I’ve been on the road for days, gathering up the props for opening night.
Instead of theater-in-the-round, our stage is an old, oval, late Victorian table. It was Tom’s grandparents’ and held reign in their kitchen. It seats six comfortably, eight closely, l0 intimately. The only problem? It’s an eyesore.
Maybe that’s why I keep it undercover, using a collection of tablecloths, some that seem to have tumbled right out of bed. I might choose the blue-and-white striped one made from ticking, the way mattress ticking used to be, or resort to old-fashioned country quilts. In the summer, I turn the tables by calling up cotton tablecloths, originally used as flowered canopies on the four-poster bed in our guest room.
My addiction to setting a table may be contagious. When our older daughter Louise married Billy, she requested dinner plates of different designs, but definitely all floral. Now when she sets her table, she produces an almost Matisse-like garden. And her 5-year-old daughter, Martha, who lives right down the hill and already knows fork-left, knife-right, often helps me before a dinner party.
At Thornhill, I like to punctuate the table with interesting napkins, sometimes poking them in the wine glasses like exclamation points. I have quite a wardrobe of napkins, as over the years I have cut them from materials I couldn’t resist from the local emporium, Blanks Fabric Center. For more formal evenings, we use the inherited white damask napkins with the raised “H” monograms, embroidered almost l00 years ago by New Orleans nuns.
We also have inherited silver napkin rings, but they aren’t much fun. Instead, I wreath the napkins with ivy that climbs up the side of the house and with curled boxwood branches from the front garden. Then, I might stretch colorful ribbons across the table as if it were an ambassador presenting his credentials to the queen.
I usually have place cards, easy identification, easy to find one’s chair. I like to make them like medals, too— made from a stationer’s gold seal with ribbons below. I’ve noticed that I seem to write our guests’ names larger these days. They don’t have to fumble around in the candlelight seeking their seats. And there are always candles, because Todd, our beekeeper son in Vermont, keeps us supplied with marvelous yellow tapers that he has made from beeswax. And if our daughters Louise and Beth are available, the calligraphy on the place cards is elegant. I prop the cards against egg cups I find in local antique shops and fill them with pansies or baby’s breath. In the autumn, I use leaves from the trees in our front lawn as place cards. The yellows and reds of the maple leaves are sturdy enough to take a black felt pen.
Once I get started, it’s hard to stop. Perhaps I’ve never grown up from children’s birthday parties. With four children we had a full, sparkling party circuit. Once we turned our kitchen into an ocean liner and Tommy’s friends came in sailor suits. And for Beth we had “Miss Beth’s Sunday Salon,” and all the very small guests wore their parents’ Sunday clothes. As favors I gave the girls paper parasols, which they twirled happily, and a bit dangerously.
Now with more of an empty house, I often set the table three days in advance, and it pleases me when I walk by. As my private backstage party is almost over, it’s time to make an entrance from the kitchen. I have my supporting cast, the dining room table is in costume, and now all I have to do is make a star out of spinach.
Dee Hardie, a former columnist for House Beautiful, is a contributing editor of Style.