Laura Alice's table

I had been planning the menu for well over a month.

We’d set the date for a week after our return from a trip to England, and the whole time I was there I was taking notes for the dinner party I wanted to throw for these fellow Anglophile friends of ours at home. Friends with whom we share an uncanny—and rather rare—sympathy over most all things and whom we’d gladly have stuffed in our suitcase to go with us if we thought they’d make it through customs. I wanted to bring back a little of the Blessed Plot for them. I wanted to gift them with an evening that spoke my love to them all, and how beautiful it was to have such friends to come home to.

“England has everything I could ever desire,” I must have told my husband a thousand times while we were there, “everything—but my people.”

And so it was a gala affair, not only because we’d been gone for so many weeks and reunions were in order, but because it was the October birthday celebration of both of the wives of our triumvirate of couples. With my husband’s gracious permission—and assistance—I went all out: a champagne toast; artichokes with lemon-thyme butter for a first course; the loveliest cut of tenderloin, the ripest, richest Bordeaux, the most jubilantly-English flavors of Stilton and Cheshire for the cheese course and a silver compote of succulent dried apricots and dates to follow it round the table.

And the pièce de résistance: an absolutely decadent steamed ginger pudding that had been simmering maddeningly away on the back burner all afternoon in a little antique mold. If I’ve ever been proud of anything in my life, it was that pudding. And it was justified: the moment we opened the door to our guests everyone took a deep, intoxicating sniff and exclaimed, ‘What is that?”  

I smiled: it’s not polite to tell your guests what you’re serving, of course. But, propriety notwithstanding, I knew that I had an ace in my sleeve with that dessert.

The conversation that flowed around our table that night was just the sort my soul is fed upon. We talked of books and art and music, of faith and worship and what they ought to look like. Every eye was alight; elbows could hardly be kept off the table in all the earnestness and joy. It was gorgeous—it was fellowship, in every sense of the word.

At one point I pulled myself away to the kitchen to dish up a second round of creamed peas and to give my pudding a peek. The fragrance was so heady my home seemed full of Christmas. I lifted the lid and wafted it towards me. Then I looked in, and, noticing that there was a little bit of leakage, I grabbed a nearby spoon by its bowl and used the handle to gently raise the mold out of its water bath, intending—incomprehensibly—to nestle the two pieces back together.

What followed was so surreal I’m still rather hazy on it. But somehow, between handling a scalding hot mold and pouring half-cooked batter off the water bath, the two halves separated and my lovely, delectable pudding dissolved into a dismal mess of un-rectifiable glop. I blinked stupidly, and with all the hopelessness of dismay I turned the pot on its side in the sink and stood watching the remains of my pudding slinking down the drain.

When I came to myself it was with a shot of panic. What was I going to do? What was I going to serve my friends for their birthday dessert? How was I going to clean up that mess? I was praying frantically, gazing round my kitchen as if I expected to find a chocolate layer cake I had forgotten about sitting on the counter.

But suddenly, quietly, a firmer hand seized me.

What would Laura Alice do?

Laura Alice. I saw her there, dainty domesticate in her organdy apron and pearls, hostess extraordinaire and a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen. My grandmother, the one everyone has always told me I am so much like and with whom I enjoyed such a glad kinship while she lived. When I think of her now, it’s not as the wasting Alzheimer’s sufferer, or even as the dashingly beautiful young woman I knew from the photographs and aspired to emulate as a girl. I see her most as I saw her that night in my kitchen: in her element with guests around her table and all the best she could offer for their delight. Exhausted, perchance, from a day’s tireless preparation but not showing it by so much as a drooping of an eyelash. We lost a great breed of hostesses when my grandmother’s generation died out, and certainly our dinner tables, if not our culture as a whole, are the poorer for it.

I knew what she would say; I knew exactly what she would do, just as clearly as if it were her kitchen and not mine.

And so I did it: nothing. I let it go. I put the lid on the now-empty pot and I rinsed out the sink. Then I put a smile on my face—not a fake, plastic affair, but a genuine joy at the sight of my friends celebrating Life and Understanding around my table (and not unmixed with a little thankful prayer for that cheese course which might quite civilly be considered dessert). I paused at my chair to make sure that no one needed anything and then I took my seat and resumed the feast of conversation.

Nothing very heroic, to be sure, and perhaps even a little insincere at first glance. But one does not have to look far into the guiding principles that ruled my grandmother Laura Alice’s life—and that of so many like her—to see the torrents of almost heavenly courtesy coursing like an underground river beneath the surface of things. Our enlightened age likes to poke fun at the Golden Rule, as if beneath even the distinction of outright ridicule. But my grandmother knew what it meant to place other people before herself, whether it was a china-and-crystal affair in the dining room or a pimento cheese sandwich and pudding cup with her granddaughter at the kitchen table.

It was the same self-management that made her hold her tongue when she saw a kleptomaniac lift the lid of one of her favorite teapots across the room and drop it into her purse, knowing well how mortified the old darling would be if called to account. It was the same spirit that bade her mother before her lay the table with the best Havilland and a fine lace cloth every Sunday in preparation for whatever friendless stragglers her husband would bring home from church. It was the same high rule that guided my mother to make ours a home in which our friends wanted to congregate growing up, cheerfully doling out sumptuous fare and high-end coffee to oblivious teenagers and as cheerfully submitting to the rearrangement of her living room furniture for our dances and frolics.

I felt its appeal tugging at my sleeve that night as I stood in my kitchen. Alone, and yet not alone, surrounded, as we all are, by that Love that will make a tent for itself in even the most trifling of instances. The whole evening had been for love, down to the little paper ribbons on the bloomy plums at the birthday girls’ places. To have given in to my very natural inclinations, to wail and thereby summon everyone from the table in a very selfish false sense of duress would have ruined it, if even temporarily. It was too great a price to pay for the loss of so much as one of those golden moments.

My grandmother knew that instinctively. Love had taught it to her early on.

I hope I really am like her some day.

This article was originally published August 2010 on the Art House America blog and is reprinted by the gracious permission of the editor.