Monday, October 25, 2010


I am a reluctant hostess.

I love having people in my home, I do. I love it. I like to feel like I have done something to make someone's day, evening, week a little better. Easier.

The threat of hosting worries me, though. It might be a casualty of a southern upbringing - exposure to so many people who do it so effortlessly: putting out scones for morning playdates, throwing together bowls of the right nuts and pretty plates with fruit and cheeses for impromtu afternoon in-home meetings - homes seemingly always ready for a guest.

I love visiting her - in all her incarnations - the friend and acquaintance who does that so well. I am not her.

Mine is a home that needs to be made ready. If we relied upon spontaneous snack, guests would be treating themselves to the last capers from a jar bought last June, the last wrapped package of Trefoils from the confused Girl Scout cookie order (someone never got their Trefoils. They weren't ours... maybe they were yours?), shredded Mexican cheese bought in bulk, the last sad apple in the bowl. These are things not made better, even if put on the Just Right plate (that I don't own).

There are papers on the counter, papers on the floor, and games peeking out from under the couch. A Lego tower was started and abandoned - saved days ago from certain doom by cries of "pleeeease, Mama? I'm still working on it!" The blinds are crooked and the marshmallow-shooting gun sits under the lamp whose bulb has been out for a week. I haven't checked, but I feel certain there is no hand towel hanging in the guest bathroom.

There is much to be done before I host.

My sister hosts grand dinners - with name plates and courses, and always a complicated ethnic dish serving as a nod to places recently travelled or guests too far from home. A Miss Manners devotee, she thinks of each guest - their backgrounds and their interests - and seats them accordingly, never beside their spousal equivalents. While I love attending such affairs, I will carry on as long as is reasonable avoiding acting as hostess to the same.

I love being a guest, though. "Can I warm up your coffee?" and "can I freshen your cocktail?" may be my favorite uniquely-southern, uniquely host-delivered questions to bookend a day. I like the little soaps, someone else's fluffy towels, and interrupting - for a night - the other's routines.

It's that season now: November and December upon us, with all their chances to host and be hosted - the happy stress of putting on a little sparkle and finding the right music. When I bake cookies, or set up the bar, or prepare a basket of towels, I will remember that each action is a prayer of gratitude - that I am lucky to have family in my world I want sleeping under my roof, that I have friends my children think are family, and that everyone enjoys a cup of coffee made by someone else, "warmed up" when there is only a single drop left.

By the time my first guests arrive, I feel certain we will have changed the light bulbs.

Monday, October 11, 2010


"In seven years of going to these fairs, we haven't once brought home a fish," I said to Fran, bragging a little.

We were watching the first children leaving the Fall Fair, loading onto the shuttle with fists wrapped tightly around the tops of leaky plastic bags, hapless little fish invariably named "Goldie" circumnavigating their watery interiors.

I commented on how their hours in plastic bags had to shorten their life spans. Fran said she knew some whose fair fish lasted years. I said that while that may be true, I never planned to let my own children in on that possibility.

An hour later, I broke away from my shuttle post to join Agatha briefly at karaoke, where AB was onstage, and pPod was in queue. There, on the bench next to her, at 2 o'clock in the afternoon.. an afternoon not really due to end much sooner than 4... were fish. Two. In baggies.

She looked at me, saw my skepticism, and dared me to deny Patrick this small victory. "See Mama? Now Annabeth has her cat and Sebastian has his cat and I have my FISH! Lightning and Bolt! Lightning is the bright one." He beamed.

I had no room to argue with either of them - Patrick, SO pleased to imagine sharing his home with his new finny friends, and Agatha, tethered out of kindness and necessity to my hyped-up, sticky-fingered five-year-old for what would be some ten hours of the day.

Agatha stopped at the pet store post-fair and helped Patrick select, and then purchased, extravagant accommodations. No stranger to sociological studies, and a caregiver to all, she would ensure these particular young ones were afforded every opportunity for success. Tank, filter, goldfish conditioner, gravel, a castle.

Shuttle-duty complete, I collected fish and tank and son and spent an exhausted hour setting up their tank (no fishbowl for these fair fish!) cursing under my breath all the while. Patrick said, quietly, "they're mine, right Mama? All mine?" and I melted a little. We filled it, added drops to the water, floated the bags to acclimate. Patrick was uncharacteristically still, mesmerized.

It didn't register when Patrick, at 6:15 Sunday morning, woke me to say "Mama! I fed them! Just one flake each like you said. Lightning is still sleeping but Bolt ate his!" It did later, though. Hours later, church and errands later, I approached the aquarium with knowing dread. And there he was, bobbing in the filter flow. Dead.

We buried him, said fishy prayers, sprinkled water over his grave. I reassured Patrick that the living fish was Lightning, not Bolt. That in fact, his 'favorite' was still fine. Sebastian, the ten-year-old skeptic, positioned himself in front of the tank later saying, "this is so depressing, Mom. You know I'm just sitting here watching this other fish die."

Lightning (formerly known as Bolt), swimming along just fine, and chewing on another flake, looked hale and hardy. I tsked at Bass for his pessimistic outlook.

Gav had gotten home from his trip in time to take the Littles all to Annabeth's lacrosse game, to give me time and space for a leisurely lunch with a traveling friend. After delivering Tarra to her Phoenix-bound plane, I came home to an empty house and went straight to the tank.

There he was. At the bottom of the tank. Twisted sideways in the plastic foliage. Bobbing in that telling way.

I flushed him. And I went to the pet store, hoping to find his doppelganger. On the way I called Gavin and urged him to stay away from home. Stall somewhere. Keep Patrick out of the house. I would buy two, pretend I had brought home a new 'friend.'

It was blatant hypocrisy, since I can vividly remember hearing of friends' parents doing both such things when I was a child, and being horrified at the dishonesty, the betrayal. In this role, years later, it seemed the only obvious option.

At the pet store, I stood in front of the tank stocked with hundreds of 30-cent fish, all looking exactly like Lightning (and somehow not at all). Phil talked me out of them. They die, Phil-the-professional said. They all die. They pee through their skin, he said. And you can't keep up with the ammonia. Better you take two female bettas. Something that will live. Males would kill each other, and you don't want dead fish again. And look! They have bright colors. Even the females. And they still have fluttery fins, even though they are the less showy of the genders. They come with a two-week warranty, even. If they die, reassured Phil, just bring back the receipt. We'll replace them.

I bought a bluish betta and a reddish betta and betta conditioner and betta food, and a net - just in case.

I stopped by the bookstore where the stalling was happening and broke the news to Patrick. I brought him to the car and showed him the new fish. His adjustment was immediate. Names were a setback, since he wanted super heroes, and the fish were girl fish. But he puzzled through it.

Violet and Lava (Violet from the Incredibles, and Lava from Shark Boy and Lava Girl) appear to be thriving. They flutter and they sooth. And we think we'll make it past the warranty. Either way, I bet it's not the last we see of Phil.