The summer I turned 16 I fell in love with Clarissa Dalloway. Well, not her precisely, but the book Mrs. Dalloway. I was studying at Andover’s high school summer session and took a literature class that opened windows upon windows into as we read Woolf, Hemmingway, Conrad and others. Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness prose relating Clarissa’s careful preparation for her dinner party drew me in. I could see Clarissa choosing the flowers and hear her wonderings about her friends as if they were spoken aloud. Clarissa’s anticipation of the gathering allowed me to be there with her, walking London streets and shopping. Woolf’s writing style was liberating for the teen-confident self-proclaimed writer I was.
Over the years, Mrs. Dalloway remained, like a distant friend I had not seen in years but recalled fondly. During my grad school years in New York, I forayed into adult dinner parties, bringing friends of different places together. My meals were simple – maybe hand-crafted ravioli from Balducci’s and a salad. Moving to Chicago where I had no roots and few friends, I met new ones and began to invite folks to my table for Shabbat dinner. In some ways, this was second nature. I grew up at my parents’ dinner parties and knew how to set a beautiful table and consider who might engage whom well in conversation. In high school I was the help (paid, of course) and considered plating and the etiquette of serving, clearing up and not breaking the china under Mom and Dad’s trusting, watchful eyes.
Cut to Friday evening. In the days before, I found myself with an unusual space of time on Shabbat. It loomed a bit, frankly, as open and alone in a still new way, and I, the maker of oh-so-many plans found myself uncertain. But then a friend mentioned she was free. I responded that I might cook Shabbat dinner and gather friends around my table. In a gracious act of solidarity, she offered to cook. I invited others who did and did not know one another, the first all-adult gathering around my table in many years, my first solo dinner party in two decades. Although the foundation of experience was there, the pursuit was new, sort of. But, soon enough, I found myself heading from the gym, admittedly in very un-Clarissa like attire, to shop for fresh mandarin oranges and almonds to make a complex Ottolenghi cake. I carefully selected the flowers by color and message — spring, confidence and herbs and fish for the entrée. Then I returned home to grind the almonds, juice the mandarins and envision my table.
That table, a mahagony-colored Asian styled piece holds six in its space and chairs, all carved exquisitely with timeless lines. For a half century or so it graced my grandparents’ Bronx apartment, often covered with protective boards and an oilcloth covering, despite its beauty. Today, with three children around it each day I protect the wooden surface with those same boards and Marimekko-patterned oilcloth. Friday was different. I swung off the cloth and folded the boards – liberated! There shone my table, smooth and inviting. I found the gold and white translucent placemats that sparkled and showed off the table’s detailed edges and set my dark dishes and good glasses atop, adding color with a blown glass bowl filled with tiny mandarin oranges, Shabbat candlesticks, a challah and wine completing the setting.
The cake emerged – perfect! – from the oven and guests arrived. We poured wine and easy conversation flowed too. Confidence and calm returned. Clarissa was back at my side.