As a young woman, I resisted ritual. I didn’t care which university won which rivalry. Secular sin! I tramped around Europe instead of stepping out at a debutante ball. Disgrace! I teased my mother about her sewing club’s monthly excuse for a neighborhood gabfest. Disrespect!
But in my earlier years, I could not rebel against a sacred life event: the kitchen shower.
“But, Mom, it’s Saturday,” I protested minutes before my sister Martha’s shower.
“Pipe down and dress up,” she replied.
Well, shut my mouth—nobody crossed the mother of the bride, especially at 15.
After enthroning the bride on an overstuffed wing chair, the hostesses invited the guests to pay court in a lopsided circle.
The gathering was a curious experience, a crash course on conduct becoming. I absorbed the nuances of gracious sitting, chorused compliments, and chitchat.
Chair decorum—legs pressed together with ankles primly crossed—made quite an impression. It was fascinating that so many women could assume the pose for two hours. Even the arthritis-plagued held fast. However, as one of the youngest guests, I never had a chance at chair manners. Every time I plopped down on a comfy loveseat, my mother pushed me out of it. Floor duty was the fate of females under 21 who had not given birth. In my lowly position, I gamely attempted the required posture, which froze one leg in a prickly snooze.
The bride ripped into her booty, a host of kitchen mysteries such as trifle bowls, ramekins, a mixer with dough hooks, relish trays, kitchen gadgets galore, and all sorts of knives. If Martha could not identify a gift, the appointed interpreter (my mother) would cry, “Oh, look, a paring knife!” The bride echoed, “Oh, look, a paring knife!”
Then everybody affected enthusiasm in sequence, rather like singing in rounds: “Oh-h-h-h! M-m-m-m! Ah-h-h-h!” Heads bobbed all the while. They reserved unabashed shrieks for handcrafted works.
The women again admired each offering as they shoved it from one lap to the other for inspection. An oft-repeated phrase rang in my ears: “I have one just like it, and it’s a wonder, simply a wonder.”
Martha behaved remarkably, beaming and getting rather hoarse. Her cheerleader experience finally paid off: peppiness on demand.
The true challenge lay in balancing a loaded plate on my lap and discussing flowerbeds with strangers while sipping pink punch and not spotting the rug or watering down my lip-gloss.
I observed that honesty takes a backseat to diplomacy at such events. My mother raved about the chicken tetrazzini, though it tasted rubbery. The bride declared every ubiquitous casserole dish and crystal bowl as absolute necessities, though recently acquired triplicates were stacked on my mother’s dining room table.
Only once did I witness a forthright outburst.
On opening one of her packages, the bride exclaimed, “Molds! Molds for making congealed salad! Grea-a-a-t! Thank you-u-u-!”
But the horror-stricken junior bridesmaid, my younger sister Peggy, said, “MOLDED salad! Who wants to eat rotten MOLDED salad? Blue cheese is gross, but this is grosser.”
“MOLDED salad is for grown-ups, dear,” my mother hissed before dispatching the reluctant gourmet to the kitchen to help a hostess scrape plates.
Nannie on the matter of husbands: “Let your husband think he’s ruling the roost, but never let him know YOU are the one running the show. I had two husbands, and they never got out of line.”
Then came the moment of revelation. Half the women lingered for a second helping of lemon squares and coffee and dispensed their wisdom on how to maintain a happy husband.
“Take a little; give a little.”
“Don’t go to bed angry.”
“Don’t wake up angry.”
“Don’t visit his folks when you’re angry.”
“Don’t cook when you’re having a spat—it spoils the sauce.”
(Newlyweds argued a lot, I concluded.)
“Give-and-take, marriage is about give-and-take.”
“Don’t start a family for a least a year.”
“Oh, my, yes. My cousin got pregnant with triplets on her honeymoon, and she’s been tired ever since.”
(For the sewing club, procreation was a hotter topic than the latest bodice-ripper paperback.)
“A joint checking account—now that’s the true test of trust.”
“You can never be overinsured.”
“Compromise is the key. A little give-and-take goes a long way.”
“Try my recipe for Husband’s Delight; he’ll go for it every time.”
(Husband’s Delight—a gloppy casserole of Manwich sauce, hamburger, canned corn and onion topped on spaghetti—made my father grumpy the first and last time he sampled it.)
All that chatter gave me cold feet about marriage. Even Martha’s smile froze until my grandmother proclaimed:
“Let yoh hu-u-uzband thi-unhk hee’s thuh one rulin’ the roost, but nevah let hee-uhm know YEW ah the one runnin’ thuh show. Ah had two hu-u-uzbands, and theyuh nevah got out of lah-yuhn.” Translation: “Let your husband think he’s ruling the roost, but never let him know YOU are the one running the show. I had two husbands, and they never got out of line.”
That comment did wonders for my outlook. Today, I can coo, offer wisdom, and exclaim—handy talents now that my friends’ daughters are getting married. Best of all, my nieces are doing floor duty.