Lessons My Father Taught Me
Throwing parties is one of the first things I learned to do. After the requisite walking/talking/getting dressed/learning to read, the next focus was having a good time. #priorities
My grandparents lived next door to us in what used to be a fairly rural suburb of Philadelphia, and, growing up, I would wander across the fields to their house in the morning to say hello, get kisses, and steal donuts. They were great entertainers, having met in a play, and felt that music was at the heart of every event. My grandfather grew up singing on the radio in Philadelphia, and I can’t remember an evening where they didn’t have a piano player. I thought it was the height of sophistication. At night, when I slept with the windows open, I could hear the piano and the sound of my grandfather singing to my grandmother and all their friends across the field.
My father was a wildly creative man who was stuck in 90s corporate America and all its heteronormative trappings. He’d grown up deeply Irish Catholic, and the bawdy openness of his Italian in-laws was a culture shock. But he had two outlets--local community theater and hosting events. We used to tease him about his “party mode.” The day before a party you could find him doing everything from completely re-floorplanning our home to hanging new wallpaper to stealing cornstalks from the neighbors farm in the dark of the night. A legendary recounting has him up at dawn secretly repainting the neighbors’ facade because he felt it was too shabby for company to see.
It was where he could express himself, show his taste and creativity. He treated each event as an opportunity to transform and storytell. I was his devoted side-kick. My mother and sister would hide in the kitchen from this mania, making endless iterations of whatever elaborate dip was en vogue in 1990-whatever. But I would be at his side—polishing silver, ironing napkins, writing placecards, trimming wicks, and, yes, stealing flowers from the garden.
(Still foraging for flowers)
My father believed firmly that hosting was thinking through what other people would experience. A conscientious host, he famously would sleep in every guest room in every house he lived in—testing the mattress, understanding what time the light came in, thinking through if there were enough wooden hangers, did the phone need to move just a little further from the bed so it wasn’t too shrill in your ear. I’m perhaps a little less committed, but will still find myself laying in the guest rooms of our farmhouse, thinking about linens and light, trying to get it right.
My father had an endless supply of party paraphernalia—candles, games, sparklers, ice buckets, décor, seasonal accents, vases, and even a large outdoor light projector to the chagrin of our neighbors. But at any moment, he was ready to set the scene. He believed firmly that the best designs were about mixing heirloom with hand-made, foraged field flowers with finely made festoons. He knew that the best events were full of activities as much as they were full of beautiful things. And he was committed to the idea that the amazing piece you used for a Halloween front porch could be transformed into something equally appropriate for a casual brunch table. I used to love to look into our closets and see everything on the shelf, tucked away and just waiting for the next moment to get together. In fact, it’s the inspiration for our Essentials Scenes.
This week in February is always entered gingerly. It has the distinction of shepherding in my handsome younger brother’s birthday, Valentine’s Day, and also the week my father died unexpectedly at a tragically young age—a veritable roller coaster of emotion and frankly, one for which all of my hosting and entertaining experience has not prepared me. My father died on February 15th after a few heartbreaking days in the hospital, and I spent the evening of that particular Valentine’s Day on the floor of an ICU, holding my siblings in fear, grief, and sadness.
(My sweet ginger of a Dad.)
How do you host a birthday, a decadent celebration of love of all forms, and grieve all in the space of days? How can you separate blowing out candles, writing love letters, and fierce loss? I promise I won’t use this blog to try to answer that, other than to say, each year I try and each year, it gets both easier and harder, all at the same time.
In the process of building Festive & Co, of launching Feste, of dreaming of Champers Social Club, there have been so many moments that are incandescent in their joy and clarity, so many moments that have been equally consuming in their challenge and disappointment. Doing all of this without my father to argue with, to get excited with, to talk it through, just to simply share it with has been the heartbreak of my life.
So I carry him with me. I share him with you. His perfectionism. His hospitality. His obsession over the details. His no holds barred approach to getting the party right. Let’s steal corn stalks together. Let’s rearrange the floorplan. Let’s see what we can do about the façade of the neighbor’s house. Let’s sleep in all the beds to make sure they’re comfortable enough, decadent enough. Let’s get robes monogramed for new houseguests. Let’s have party closets. Let’s have all the candles on hand just in case. Let’s polish that silver.
Lessons my father taught me for entertaining (and frankly for life):
- Ordinary to extraordinary. My father grew up in a very working-class family in North Philadelphia, one of 8 children without a lot of means to split between. Even in the early years of my parents’ marriage when money was very tight, my father loved beautiful things and created something special around him. It wasn’t about what he spent, but how he presented it, how he made people feel, how he pulled it together. It was his effort that made it luxurious. This lesson stayed with me when I worked in Anthropologie right out of college, creating displays on shoestring budgets. The materials weren’t important—the investment was in our team’s talent to transform ordinary to extraordinary. Hosting is the same. You don’t need Hermès dinner plates to set a decadent dinner table.
- Get scrappy. Reuse, beg, borrow, steal. He taught me to not be afraid to peek in closets, look in attics, and peer around corners, asking “hey, can we use that?” Honestly, as an event professional, my favorite installations have all come from some wild piece we’ve dragged from one side of a resort to another after begging the hotel team to let us use it. Does your neighbor have a statue that you think would look great on your buffet for one night? Doesn’t hurt to ask.
- People love shrimp cocktail. Don’t underorder. We have it on the menu at Champers, don’t you worry.
- People like to sit. You can literally never have too many chairs. You would not believe the amount of comfortable cocktail seating groups my father could get into a space. Instead of making a space feel cluttered, it had the effective of creating small moments for tête-à-têtes, conversation, and lingering late nights over games and digestif.
- It’s unacceptable to have light bulbs out. This one makes me laugh, but for some reason I was always light bulb captain. I would have to scour the entire house before an event with a ladder, switching out chandelier bulbs, figuring out how to open the recessed cans, and making sure that all the decorative lighting worked. Essential household maintenance.
- Never stop dusting. Not just the surface, but the objects on it.
- The last thing you put away before people arrive is the vacuum.
- The current floorplan? Maybe it’s time to just shake it up and try something different. My Dad would tell you to move that baby grand piano to the porch if it would help. In fact, he bought custom casters for his piano so he could move it around himself. This is after his adolescent children refused to be piano movers for the 100th time. But the commitment to the theme is what is important.
- People like a seasonal drink. Hot apple cider in the fall? Irish coffee? Hard Arnold Palmers in the summer? Something you can batch prep, something a little nostalgic, something easy to sip. Check out our punch recipes for what we’re serving up this February.
- Theme serveware—when it works, it WORKS. My dad loved to serve pumpkin soup in a dramatically oversized ceramic pumpkin and honestly, the whimsy somehow made it lovely. I would have mocked this pumpkin bowl had I seen it at Home Goods (or wherever one finds these seasonal goods), but it was a crowd pleaser.
- Polish the silver. Iron the napkins. It makes a difference.
This week, I don’t want to link you to any product. This isn’t transactional—it’s relational. I just want to share my Dad, a truly great host, with you. I’m working on finding that balance of celebration, love, and grief. I’ll let you know how it goes.
If you want to linger awhile and discover more about what we’re building, click here to read more Feste Practices. You might enjoy:
How and why we created our Scenes.