What Good are Parties?
When I look at old photos of my life at Heathfield, it is as if I could enter that life again. It is physical pain, a longing, and a deep feeling of wishing I could go back. But of course, none of us can go back. We need to go forward. My life is wonderful now, but it was also wonderful back then. It is hard to say what is most important my very long and eventful past or my much shorter and unknown future. In the present moment it is so wonderful to have these photos which trigger memories of the marvelous life I have been given, the splendid house, the sweet children, loving dogs. My children were young and now they are middle-aged adults. Many photos are of parties because that was one of our primary activities there.
That feeling of longing just won’t go away when I am looking at the photos. I could just turn a corner and be there. I am at Heathfield. Waking up in the bedroom with the bevelled glass windows rainbowing the sunlight…Walking down the spiral staircase into the brick floored living room and on toward the kitchen…Out of the large, heavy, blue door to the tan pea-gravel driveway…Walking around the grounds, with the scent of cut grass permeating the air, looking out at the turquoise pool, playing tennis on the green, hard surface, tennis court, walking through the stables, the scent of horses in my nose. Photos bring it all back with an almost physical impact.
When we first moved to Heathfield it was common for me to walk about the yard all around our house and vegetable garden saying to myself, “This is ours. This belongs to us. This makes me happy. This is really mine.” After having lived in the city in Washington DC on a tiny bit of ground, where our children played often in the street, Heathfield was Heaven. Being able to walk all around the house, and out to the extensive driveway and the barns and outbuildings was like a dream.
We loved to share our surroundings. Parties were so easy. We had space, people could park their cars easily, and the house lent itself to the easy flow of guests in and out between the house and the yard. In the beginning I often entertained in the front yard, it seemed enough, but there was the feeling of space because that yard sat up on a hill above the pond below with a view of the trees above the stone wall on the opposite side of the pond.
We had so many parties down at that pond! We had bonfires and cooked chili over them. We had kegs of beer there. We partied there in the snow. We partied there in the summer. We fished that pond and we went out in the red canoe slipping oars against the calm water. We enjoyed it. We let our children and their friends walk the ponies into the pond and enjoyed the cool water washing against them and us as they frolicked in the shallow water near the shore.
As I look at the pictures of our home, the nooks and crannies of it come to life. Christine Wines and Ida Caison, (Renick) Clarke and Andy Gibbs, and Richard Hall, helped at all the parties. They helped us give pleasure to all our friends and neighbors, plus our children’s friends. These helpers are all gone now, but they live once again in my imagination.
We had birthday parties for ourselves and for our children and for our friends. We had luncheons and teas and dances there. Both daughters “came out” at Heathfield for their Debutante tea dances. We had weddings there, too. Our children were Christened there and later THEIR children were also Christened on the property. We had the very first Virginia Wine Festival under our Pakistani tent set up on the lawn. We had parties outside and we had parties in the barn, down at the pond, and out by the pool. Parties in the house could always expand outward if necessary. We had friends, relatives, prospective clients, children’s friends, in laws, Senators and Congressmen, royalty and authors of books. We had wine lovers, food lovers, dog lovers and horse people. We entertained teachers and ministers and strangers alike. We all enjoyed a good party.
I had to make choices. We did not have a lot of extra money. We lived well. We had a lot of horses. We had at least one groom sometimes two. We had two maids who helped keep the house and do laundry plus help at parties. We had five children in private school. I don’t know how we did what we did. Charley was an architect. And we were fortunate to have had some investments left to us by grandparents. Later I became a real estate broker and that helped. I did not want to waste money on Caterers and so I usually cooked the food myself. I would get Christine and Ida to help but basically, I was my own caterer. It did save money. Besides that, I got a kick out of saying I made it myself when people asked who my caterer was. Collecting the china and cutlery, linens, and glasses to be able to serve 150 people at a hunt breakfast pleased me.
At any rate, I loved to have parties because I was good at it. And I liked the networking that went with party giving. Dinner parties were like chess games. Strategically placing guests was a game I understood. Of course, my father played this same game and did it very successfully.
We entertained constantly. Hunt breakfasts for OCH (Orange County Hunt) were some of everyone’s favorites. These were more and more heavily attended over the years. After some years my husband became the President of the hunt and so we had the opening day breakfast for many years. The people who hunted came along with as many landowners as were able. We served 150 sometimes. The menu varied with Virginia ham and biscuits a staple, sometimes rabbit stew (mostly chicken), big salads, hominy with cheese and lots of butter, and Chocolate mousse for dessert. Or later cookies called Cow Pies from the Upper Crust bakery when the mousse got to be too much trouble for so many people.
We had so many near-disasters, storms, wind, rain, snow, and blistering heat. One Christmas we had such a fierce wind that it blew out the electricity for miles around. We nearly froze in our beds on Christmas Eve. But in the morning the lights came on for an hour or so, before going out again. It was just long enough for me to heat the oven on high heat to put in the roast beef for 45 minutes with the heat on. Then I turned it off and DID NOT OPEN the oven door until time to carve it. Our Christmas meal was saved and some of it was cooked over the fire in the fireplace that year.
We always celebrated our anniversary with a party every year. We ordered a tent from Pakistan because I knew we would be giving a lot more events. That was a good investment which we used first at a dance on our tenth anniversary, a picture perfect evening. On our 20th anniversary we had a dance for 250 people with a fine big rented tent. Just before the party was to start it poured rain, thunder roared and lightning flashed. The orchestra leader told me that if it continued they would not be able to play for us. I was shocked, and scared. But the weather cooperated and though it continued to rain all night there was no more thunder and lightning. We danced until they quit at 1:00 am.
Occasionally we had perfect weather. The wedding day of our daughter Lilla and her husband Chris, was magical. Perfect temperature, no wind, no heat, no rain. And so we did NOT have a tent for the wedding guests, instead, they were free to wander over the yard sitting at tables randomly placed in the open air. We had a smaller tent for the orchestra and for dancing. We also used our colorful tent from Pakistan to cover the yard near the house for a delicious buffet. Our parties were part of our life, our marriage, and our children’s experience.
It is still part of who I am, but now it is nearly effortless. The skills learned over more than a half-century of entertaining have become ingrained. The other day while house-sitting for my daughter, I asked people for drinks with NO cocktail food at all. I even forgot to look for ice and discovered at the last moment that I had only two old-fashioned trays of ice. It was lucky one of my guests brought me some at my request. It was a charming couple of hours with no stress. The gorgeous day and comfort of old friends made it really nice. Reminiscing with people who lived through it all with me was like taking a lovely swim in a familiar pool on a warm day. Refreshing.
Copyright©. 2022 Bonnie B. Matheson
5 thoughts on “What Good are Parties?”
I love your writing style and your posts. Clearly, you have lived an impassioned life. You are a wonderful, vivid storyteller. I also revel in the fact that you have lived a full life and have a love for America and will call a spade a spade unapologetically! I appreciate the many years you have lived and the wisdom you share. Thanks for sharing your journey!
Bonnie, Thank you for your lovely words that so beautifully describe your wonderful life experiences. I remember Heathfield and I loved it. It was grand and mysterious and magical. I feel so privileged to have stayed there one night when I was working for Monticello. That fateful visit ultimately resulted in my future position as President of the National Sporting Library, one of my treasured memories. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane. Hope to see you again soon!
Such nice memories for you and your family!
Enjoy your summer and maybe I’ll see you at Pilates soon!
That was beautiful! Thanks for sharing those wonderful memories.
Enjoyed reading about your wonderful memories!