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Home Grown

Highly (Anxietied) Entertaining

My mother, the hostess with a host of worries

By Cynthia Adams

My mother, while a charming and gracious Southern woman, was driven to the fine edge of sanity by entertaining.

Hosting the Home Demonstration Club (born in the Depression) to discuss homemaking topics such as canning and cake decoration was on par with Princess Margaret making a stop in Hell’s Half Acre. HHA was 30 miles from Monroe, Charlotte, Concord and — well, places where HRH Margaret would never deign to visit. 

“Company” sent seismic waves through our ranch home.

A hair appointment was booked. A trip to Smart Shop for a new dress. High-anxiety calls went to Mama Patty, her mother, who lived for company.

Mama Patty, always baking, was primed and ready for “drop-ins,” her polite term for interlopers. Not so with her youngest, Jonnie Louise (who dropped the “e” on Jonnie in her fifties — Mama Patty had hoped for a boy).

Out came the Electrolux, Johnson’s floor wax and the buffer. Yes, JL owned a buffer. Also, a punch bowl with cut-glass cups; plus, china, crystal, silver, linens, etc.

My older sister and I would vacuum, then hand wax the floors (yeah, Karate Kid stop your sniveling). Then buff. While managing to gripe and argue the entire time. 

Once when I complained that I was too tired to help, Mom gave me one of her diet pills. 

“These are from Dr. Pfeiffer, so they’re safe, but give lots of energy.” 

Those pills became known as Black Beauties on the street — amphetamines. Of course, JL didn’t know this. I grew more jittery than the shuddering buffer, following the oak grain and inhaling the waxy smells as my young heart hammered. 

While show time drew near, we were all banned from the kitchen as soon as cooking commenced.

Mom believed her usual repertoire lacking when it came to the Home Demonstration Club. She would send herself into a complete frenzy — once making a baked Alaska.

By the time the Home Demonstration agent and guests arrived, Mom, the floors and her buffet were perfect — but she was near collapse.

Then there was Mama Patty.

Mama Patty, who had faced devastating losses, lived out her life as if she had only walked among duckies and daisies. Yet she lost a toddler to meningitis. A young husband to an aneurysm. A breast to cancer.

(When questioned about never complaining, she replied, “Self-pity is a cancer! And it will kill you faster,” then proceeded to smock gowns for neighboring newborns and send cakes when someone died.) 

Mama Patty’s house was tidy, cheerful — and full of bad furniture.

At least, the kitchen was cheerful. The table, chairs and counter were red melamine rimmed with chrome. Pound cakes (lemon and chocolate) awaited in Tupperware. A fruit pie chilled in the “Frigidaire” with fried chicken, potato salad and pickles.

A meal was always at the ready and she happily fed whomever graced her doorstep. 

She “went modern,” decorating the den with a brown Naugahyde sofa and recliner, and a braided green rug. She accented with unidentifiable amber glass objects. With the recliner extended, she stretched out to enjoy her soaps, The Edge of Night and Secret Storm.

Mama Patty’s bedrooms were filled with 1940s-era “suites” of brown furniture, which even my kid self recognized as ugly. 

When Mama Patty died, mourners spilled outside the country church, later overwhelming her little house. A weepy-eyed man no one recognized blubbered, “I loved Miss Pat so much!” 

When asked how he knew our grandmother he answered, “Oh, I repaired her appliances.”

Seemed he and his family enjoyed not only regular visits but also her cooking. He once was fixing the washing machine when a bad storm arose; she perfectly innocently insisted he lie down on the bed till it passed. 

Mama Patty feared storms, snapping turtles tangling up her fishing line, snakes and drowning.

All real things to fear. And all of which made my mother’s social anxieties, then and now, an even greater mystery.  OH

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry magazine.