As my 50th birthday loomed, a friend in New York gave me this advice: Youd better do something to celebrate it, or youll end up always remembering that you turned 50 without doing anything special. This, she went on to say, had happened to her. My husband picked up theater tickets at the last minute and invited some friends we didnt know very well to join us. Neither the play nor the meal was very good, and the other couple seemed baffled and a little embarrassed to be spending such a significant birthday with me. And thats what I remember whenever 50th birthdays come up.
I was loath to create my own such dreary memory.
But I was even more afraid of a surprise party.
I had seen several friends surprised by big parties, where they were forced on a moments notice to greet all manner of ghosts from their pasts and skeletons from their closets that well-meaning party planners had located and imported from all corners of the globe. The thought of a surprise party plus the shock and horror of seeing such ghosts and skeletons was really too great a risk to bear. I decided to throw myself a birthday party.
At the time, my enormous back yard was ankle deep in eucalyptus leaves and cluttered up with odd piles of broken concrete, rotting wood piles and rolls of old rusting fencing left over from when I bought the place. Id have to clean it up. If the party proved a bust, I reasoned, at least Id have a clean yard.
My birthday is in mid-August, so the temperatures dictated that an outdoor party would have to be at night.
For invitations I combed picture books for a suitable image. In a book on alchemy I found a drawing of a queen holding a small, fire-breathing dragon that bore a remarkable resemblance to my terrier. I photocopied the image, re-drew the queens visage with my glasses and wispy hair and slapped the picture on the front of the invitation. Inside I wrote, Michelle Huneven invites you to a Night Party to celebrate her 50th birthday, 8 p.m., etc. On the opposite side of the page went, Dinner will be served / Children and dogs welcome. I hand-colored around 65 invitations with markers and sent them to everyone I liked. Eighty-plus adults said theyd come, plus nine children and two dogs.
I decided to not even think about cooking for this mob. I asked a friend to cater. Shed bring Cuban-style roast pork legs and a big vat of mixed shellfish ceviche. I would make a green salad, and grill vegetables and some chicken for the non-pork eaters. Rather than birthday cake, there would be strawberry shortcake.
My sister, who lives in Washington, D.C., came out five days ahead of time to help. Men were hired to clean out the yard.
I went to IKEA with no set ideas and came home with two tall torchères that took 150-watt bulbs ($7.99 each), 100 tea lights and almost as many clear glass candle holders. I bought 108 stackable juice glasses at $4 a dozen party wine glasses for the rest of my life. I bought half a dozen big cushions, $5.99 each. At the checkout line were these outdoor steel torch holders, reduced many dollars to a mere 99 cents each the hitch was, no corresponding torches. I bought about a dozen holders. On the way home, I stopped at a hardware store for torches which they didnt have, but they did have replacement wicks.
Once home, I made my own torches. In the garage I found a dozen quart jars and lids. I punched holes in the lids, inserted thick wicks, filled the lamps with oil and lit them. The torches eerie resemblance to Molotov cocktails was, in broad daylight, more than disturbing, but after a few warning poufs! they did not explode. I fell in love with those torches. They had big smoky flames and a splendid homemade savagery.
Then I spent an hour or so making covers for the pillows out of leftover linen and some Indian paisley fabric.
I went outside and surveyed the yard.
Right at the back French doors is a large courtyard thats where Id serve the food, close by the kitchen. Go up three broad steps above the courtyard and youre on an old cracked and wavy basketball court. Thats where people would mostly congregate. To the east of the basketball court, about 30 feet, is an old cement pad for a garage. The bar would go there, so that people would have to walk through the party to get to their drinks and, en route, mingle and talk to people they didnt know.
To the west of the basketball court is a nice flat place. I pitched a tent there for the kids and whoever else might like it. Kids love a tent.
I had maybe four outdoor chairs and one outdoor coffee table, total. The word went out to friends and neighbors for furniture and rugs and more cushions.
Target supplied colorful cocktail napkins and big plastic drink cups for the non-drinking crowd there would be fruit juices and soda water.
I bought a case each of red and white wine.
Starting a week before the party, people began calling. What can I bring?
Ice, I told them. Lemon curd for the strawberry shortcake. Pillows and more outdoor furniture. Wine. Beer.
Three days before the party, volunteers helped bring electricity into the yard via big fat orange extension cords and IKEA surge protectors, then strung little lights in the trees and bushes. We arranged the savage torches and lit them again. More initial threatening poufs but no explosions. We set an IKEA electric torchère under each of the ancient eucalyptus trees overhanging the yard so that their limbs were lit beautifully from below.
My sister and I went on furniture runs to the neighbors. Other people brought over teak chairs and tiled tables, and beautiful rugs. A chair seat fell off on my big toe, causing a small dark bloom under the nail that would, for the next six months, remind me of the party and the extensive preparations every time I saw it.
Although much of the yard had been cleaned up, the basketball court was still covered in leaves and grit. The night before the party, neighbors brought over more rugs while I was sweeping it. Suddenly, five people were sweeping. Then one got out the hose and washed down the whole court.
The next morning, when the court was dry, two artists came over and arranged the beautiful Persian rugs, pillows and furniture to make for a series of outdoor rooms and conversational clusters.
The morning of the party, my housekeeper cleaned the house. My sister and I went to the Pasadena farmers market and bought big bags full of vegetables to grill and looked for Bibb lettuce. No Bibb there, and none at Whole Foods either. I was not really in the mood to be flexible. I had just turned 50. The lack of Bibb lettuce seemed overwhelming. Luckily, Howies in Arcadia came through. I bought 10 heads.
A neighbor took half of the vegetables to grill at her house. I grilled the other half and four chickens in the heat of the afternoon at home. The phone rang constantly. What can I bring? Wine. How do I get there? What time does it start? Can I really bring my dog?
An old friend whod volunteered to bring flowers brought 10 vases filled with absolutely gorgeous arrangements of homegrown roses, penstemon, daisies, zinnias all the summer blooms.
After arranging the flowers in the early evening, some two hours before the first guests arrived, the setup was done. Walking through the yard alone, looking at what resembled a lavish Bedouin encampment, I had a huge moment of mortification and misgiving. I had spent the last week essentially getting ready for my own party. The amount of effort could not, I realized, be disguised, and it seemed I had really gone too far and dragged my willing, loving, incredibly tolerant friends along. The whole setup rugs, tent, torches, lights, furniture suddenly seemed supremely silly, so self-indulgent and overdone it was embarrassing. Id had fun, in a driven kind of a way. I felt self-conscious for caring so much, for throwing my own party. I felt a little ashamed. Ridiculous, in a word.
But it was too late. Too late to dismantle the evidence of my folly.
I went inside, bathed and dressed. My catering friend and her 16-year-old daughter arrived with gallons of ceviche and two enormous pork legs, which had spent most of a week marinating in citrus juice before being roasted all day. She set up a buffet/carving station in the courtyard. Her daughter sweetly asked me for a Band-Aid (too nice to say outright that my parrot had bitten her). At 10 to 8, when twilight was deepening, I took a lighter and went out to light the 40-plus candles along the driveway. It was a quiet, calming job, and for a while I was alone. Then guests began walking up.
In the back yard, the smooth, supple limbs of the two enormous eucalyptus trees looked silvery in their light. The torches blazed. Lights twinkled in the vines and leaves. People gathered where they were meant to. Little girls in their beautiful party dresses raced through the yard screaming with senseless joy. One person said, This is the Bedouin camp I searched for all over North Africa and never found. No ghosts! No skeletons! And those wild torches!
Then came the food, which was both a terrific success and the main problem of the evening. There was enough of it, but getting it set out and served and replenished was rocky. Luckily, a few partygoers pitched in still, we ran out of salad and red wine.
And, as for dessert, let me say it right here: Two quarts of whipped cream is not enough by half for 80 people.
After dinner there was roasting and toasting. My sister played the violin. Old friends told embarrassing stories about me. Two kids, one a trumpeter, another a flautist, played their instruments for us. Then we went on talking and drinking until very late, when people started cleaning up and leaving.
In the morning, I saw that there was plenty of red wine left in its case under the bar.
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In the fridge, I found a huge bag of Bibb lettuce salad.
Before breakfast, the first e-mail came in: What a beautiful night. I dont think Ive ever been to such a magical party the tent, the calm, intelligent clusters of people (I wanted to talk to almost everyone), your gorgeous lit house, the great food, all presided over, it seemed, by those two majestic trees . . .
Around 9 the phone started to ring.
Such a success, said one person, and another. A great success. And that pork! That pork! Oh, and by the way, is there any pork left?