The accomplished hostess knows this fundamental truth of entertaining:  Good parties tend to grow.

A little gathering at my place on a recent weekend morning started with just two guests, with my granddaughter Sis as hostess and me hovering in attendance nearby as kitchen staff.

“Evie, can we get out the tea set?” she had asked, beaming a little jolt of joy into my weary heart that morning.  The tea set is a relic from my parents’ time at the American naval base in the Philippine Islands in the 1950s, an acquisition on a side trip to Hong Kong in those very different post-war times.

My granddaughter was a newborn when my mother downsized to smaller quarters and so many treasures went on to new destinations.  I took the lovely teapot with its enchanting curved spout and the wafer-thin, gold-flowered cups and plates and stuck them in a drawer, wondering if they might appeal to her on some future lazy afternoon.  On a recent day when we needed, shall we say, to redirect her focus, I had unwrapped them and conveyed them as hers, to remain for now in my care. “We’ll get them out soon and have a real tea party,” I offered, unsure if she even knew what that was.

That day was here.

As I reached for the location at the no-kids elevation where I stored the 60-year-old china, she installed the first two guests in their places at the coffee table, on a little bench and in a child’s rocker.  The long, slender stuffed monkey displayed manners questionable for a tea party, his long arms flung behind him wildly as if on a bender, but I let it go.  The raggedy, worn lop-eared bunny who faced him across the table displayed a rather detached expression for a party guest, but I let that go, too.

Shall I make some real tea? I offered, having saved a caffeine-free variety with a hint of cocoa in it for the children, and she answered, “Oh, yes, everyone wants tea.”  I snapped to it in the kitchen, digging out a few of my grandmother’s shiny sterling teaspoons to add to the place settings.  As I worked, more guests arrived. Next came a blue Kentucky Wildcat beanbag, who was never constructed for sitting up, a dark brown squirrel who held his ground rather nicely, another bear, and finally, a striped fish relic of a long-ago Disney movie.  Fish needed an extra pillow to swim level with his teacup.  Meanwhile, the real dog patrolled the perimeter nervously, certain this unauthorized activity required careful monitoring and watching me for instructions.

I held my breath as Sis, at her request, carefully poured the hot brew for each guest into the tiny cups. Not a drop spilled, reminding me again how trust fosters growth.  With more focus on the spirit of the occasion than prudent nutritional practices for six-year-olds, I inquired if the guests preferred honey or sugar for their tea.  What a rookie mistake; Sis is never one to pass up promising options.  “They might want both,” she answered. I paused briefly over my error, then decided, why stop now?

Older Brother Buddy disdained this little charade at first, but as tea was poured and the gathering grew, he could not bear the sidelines.  He came forward with a tiny rubber creature of undetermined species (possibly a video game character?) that was liberated from its small plastic case in time to claim a seat at the table.  “He’s too small to drink from a cup,” Buddy worried about his little pal, about 1.5 inches long.  Could he drink from a spoon? I asked.  This was satisfactory, and soon the miniature creature was perched on a placemat in front of a silver spoon containing just a few drops of the amber liquid. The hostess and her brother sipped over-sweetened tea from different cups and spoons on their guests’ behalf, chatted sociably, and soon the little event wound to a conclusion.

My 89-year-old mother loves knowing when others enjoy her vintage things, so it was fun to tell her the tea-party story soon after.  I shared photos showing the table set with her china, amusing her great-grandchildren more than half a century after she first acquired the tiny, gold-trimmed little pieces. She shook her head, amazed.  “I didn’t know little girls still cared about those things,” she said, a bit wistfully.  Within a few short days, there would be no immediate chances to reminisce with Mom over family photos, as her residence was closed indefinitely to visitors while pandemic rages on.

With such abrupt swiftness, our world has spun into a dark and unpredictable alternative reality in recent weeks.  Everyone seems frightened and unbearably stressed.  With each new dawn, the news continues to worsen, and on some days, hope may elude us.

And yet we press on.  In her brilliant essay collection Late Migrations, author Margaret Renkl explores the intimacies of acute grief, but says that human beings are creatures who are built for joy. We look around, and we see that in defiance of global tragedy, spring still came, and the cherry trees have gracefully bowed down under the weight of their opalescent pink offerings.  Golden daffodils stand forth in triumph to herald the coming of Easter.  Musicians pour out their gifts before cameras instead of crowds, because deep in their marrow they know how music transcends, never more than in the hardest of times.  Birds are boisterously caroling their mating and nesting plans, driving indoor cats mad with frustration through windows everywhere.  From balconies across the ancient cities of Europe, strangers sing opera to the open air and applaud the heroism of healthcare workers who, if they are among the fortunate, they will never encounter.

And little kids still like tea parties.


Nothing illuminates the beauty of the average day quite so brilliantly as the fear that the average day has vanished indefinitely, maybe for always.

And so, on the morning after the President of the United States declared the virus pandemic a national emergency, I ventured out to see how my little world would respond to this chapter of reality never imagined in my lifetime.  The strict government guidelines on cancelling large gatherings and restricting business traffic were a few days off yet, so I set out to see what was open, what was closed, and who might be out and about

First stop, the grocery store. Facebook updates had seemed incredible, with notes on shortages, featuring photos of empty shelves where abundance had reigned just days before. It seemed like something that happens in some sad, faraway place we have no desire to visit, yet suddenly, we have arrived there.  Still, this particular grocer—my personal favorite, Trader Joe’s—was ready for the small crowd that gathered for the 8 a.m. opening.  “Good morning!” said a cheerful greeter as customers filed in quietly, hopefully.  “We’re glad you are here today.”  Friendly charm as a talisman against panic?  It was a brilliant strategy.  I could feel myself breathing a little easier.  The woman just in front of me at the stack of carrying baskets grabbed one for herself, then turned around, extending her other arm and offered one to me. “Good morning,” she said companionably, and I accepted the basket, returned the smile, and breathed just a little deeper still.

I looked around, encouraged at the sight of full produce shelves, banana bunches brightly curled in piles of riotous yellow and ruby apples nearly spilling over their bins. Bread shelves were lined with plump, fragrant bags.  The amiable spirit of the crowd as shoppers spread out among the aisles seemed, indeed, to help stifle any urge to snatch multiples for hoarding, and I observed no one piling carts high.  I leaned over the freezer section to snare a particular favorite, frozen organic blueberries, and met the eyes of a woman acquiring raspberries from the adjacent bin.  “Good morning,” she said with a congenial nod, and I marveled at this group of strangers, so bent on offering civility.  Determined to respond in kind, I admitted, “I’m so glad to find my blueberries this morning! I was afraid they might not have any.”  For this, I received an empathetic eye roll. “People need to BEHAVE,” she answered firmly, with the authority of a sixth-grade teacher who brooks no foolishness from hormone-mad adolescents.  “They need to wash their hands, only buy what they need, and BEHAVE.  Now, you have a good day,” she concluded briskly, pushing her cart in the other direction.

A few aisles over, I was disappointed to find the shelves for canned goods nearly empty.  No beans or diced tomatoes for chili, not on this day. I stopped a box-toting staffer who was motoring past.  “No beans at all today?”  I asked sadly.  “We’ll be full on this shelf later today, closer to closing time, ma’am,” he said, shifting his carton to the floor briefly so he could face me.  “I’m sure you don’t want to make another trip, and I’m really so sorry.  We were caught by surprise by all of this, like everyone, I guess, but we’re starting to get a handle on it now.  It’s going to start getting better in the next few days.”  I get it, I answered with a shrug, thinking how hard it must be to disappoint so many people.  “Hang in there.”  He hoisted his carton again and grinned back at me as he sped away, adding, “You do the same.”

Next stop:  some professional attention for the toenails. It seems astonishing now, but just six days ago getting a pedicure still seemed like a logical, not risky, thing to do.  Is it petty to crave a pedicure during a national crisis?  Quite possibly, but I elected to view it as fuel for the local economy, and the urgent imperatives of social distancing were a day or two away from commanding the national consciousness, at least around here. I crossed the street to the popular nail salon that takes walk-ins and is regularly patronized by nearly everyone I know. On a pre-pandemic Saturday morning preceding spring break and beach plans for many families it would have been hopeless to get in without an appointment. Stepping underneath a large American flag prominently placed at the entrance, I pushed open the door and walked into an empty salon.

“We are very glad to see you,” said the smiling proprietor.  I followed him to a chair and caught a whiff of disinfectant as I sat down and waited for the technician.  As always, the place was sparkling clean, and I was impressed with the careful precautions—gloves, masks on all technicians, sterilized instruments– throughout the process, though I knew those had long been there and were not instituted to combat our national problem.  A few customers trickled in, probably a dozen or so on a morning when there would have been three times that many.  With smooth, exfoliated feet and sparkling toenails, I passed him again on my way out the door.

“Thank you,” I said, and paused, gesturing around the wide space.  “I hope things go OK for you, that people still come, you know…” I trailed off, struggling for something appropriate to say in this unknown territory. Nodding, he gestured in a similar manner and answered in a heavy Asian accent, “We have lots of space, we spread people out, we be very careful.”  I regretted that I couldn’t understand everything he explained, but his conclusion was clear as a bell.  He paused and gazed at me warmly, looking me straight in the eye. “It be OK,” he said, “It be OK. This is America.”  I turned to go, overwhelmed by the ache in my heart, uncertain if I smiled in goodbye.  Ducking again under his large American flag, I felt tears welling up and trickling out as I made my way to my car.  Whether they were droplets of appreciation, of sympathy, or of sheer terror, I can’t know.

And, of course, a few days later, the flag continued waving above the door emblazoned with this sign.