A Team of One

I have always been more than one person. When I was married with young children, I was at least four people. A woman. A wife. A mother. A writer. When I had a party, and that was often, I upped the ante and became many more people: a musician/singer/entertainer/chef/hostess. In other words, I threw parties in overwhelm mode. You just wouldn’t know it. I certainly didn’t.

I didn’t know that I was reverting to my early childhood in which I was asked to perform for the guests. I hated performing for the guests back then, but as an adult, I learned to entertain on my own terms and frankly, I learned that I truly loved pulling out my guitar, getting everyone singing, passing around good cheese, whipping out the good china, serving an impressive spread of lovingly prepared food. It all brought me joy. Or so I thought.

I was locally famous for my parties. I went all out. Full on Martha. I had the house and the stuff and the energy and the friends, and I loved being a hostess to all of it. One time I actually rode my horse five miles down a busy road full of logging trucks to give pony rides at my daughter’s horse-themed seventh birthday party because the horse trailer bottomed out. I wasn’t about to let that get in the way of my promise to a gaggle of little girls, and mostly to my daughter. Our Christmas party had a half mile of candle-lit luminaria (real candles) all the way up our country road in the snow. There were various cooked beasts, stacks of homemade Christmas cookies, garlands everywhere. People said it was like something out of Dickens.

I was proud of what we created in our home and as a family. Parties were a way to not just share it all, but perhaps to prove it all. That’s where the lesson lived. I just wasn’t ready yet to receive it.

It helped that I had a partner in those days. My husband. He liked to throw parties too and he was good at taking direction and he was good at innovation when I didn’t know what directions to give. We were good together in this way. But eventually we were not good together. And then I was no longer married.

Then I was fighting to keep my house and my children and my stuff intact. And the horses had to go. And the china became something perhaps ebay-able. And the parties stopped. I didn’t have the money, but moreover, I didn’t have the energy. And there was this new piece of it: shame. That chapter of our bounteous, glorious creation had come to an end. The only thing that mattered to me was to tend to my children, and fortify our little pack of three. There were ten years of that.

“Mom, you should throw a party,” my young adult children recently implored. “You used to be so much fun! This house used to be so alive!” And I realized that in my years of triage, I’d let go of the fun part of me. That’s the part I’d been longing to recover, and I didn’t realize it until yesterday.

Because yesterday… I had my first dinner party in years. I invited people who I really wanted to pamper for being so kind to me over the years, and a few out-of-towners from my childhood who I, admittedly, wanted to impress. I concocted a menu that would satisfy and maybe even impress Martha, esq. That was the problem: I was trying to impress “Martha,” who quite likely was behind the same voices that asked me to perform at my parents’ parties. And the part of me that had to prove herself in my early years as a hostess. The problem was, nowhere in this equation did I factor in happiness. Hosting that party did not make me happy.

Today, I ask myself: What would it take to make party-giver Laura happy, as the woman you are today? Isn’t that what a party should evoke in a person? Happiness? Joy?

I mean, was I happy going to five different stores to get the ingredients? For four days? Was I happy doing a garden overhaul and pulling all the grass that’s taken over in the years of letting go of the pretty things and holding the essentials together? Was I happy ignoring my back, which was screaming at me to STOP, and instead saying aloud to no one, “I can go for another fifteen minutes without it going out on me.” All day long?

Was I happy baking an apricot torte and two loaves of homemade sourdough bread, which takes three days if I do it correctly? And I did it correctly. Was I happy running to Costco for throw pillows three hours before my guests came, because I chose to make things that I’ve never made before and didn’t account for the extra chopping time (Gazpacho salad. And yes, Martha’s recipe). Was I happy in the eleventh hour chucking new throw pillows that I only sort of liked on my patio furniture to distract from the mildew? Apparently, I was going for some sort of used-to-be-me award that I thought I’d given up on a long time ago.

So I was behind. Waaaay behind. And I started to miss having a partner. Someone who could cover for me. Usher them outside and show them the garden while I composed myself. I mean… for the first time in years, I’d made my home, inside and outside, so fabulous. The silver was polished. The piano was tuned. There were cherry tomatoes and lavender and sunflowers blooming in planters on my deck. I’d made my bed and everything! It’s me that I’d neglected in all of it.

I cut it so close that when my guests arrived, I was still in the clothes I’d gardened in, sweat dripping down my face, my back teetering on giving out. I received their lovely gifts and bottles of wine from their coiffed and fully primped selves, with my mangled, muddy fingers, and limping, said, “Come on in!”

I really wanted to be primped and coiffed and sitting there like my mother when her guests arrived: casually doing needlepoint like, “Oh yeah! I forgot that I was throwing a dinner party for thirteen people! Welcome. I just so happen to have a full bar and a four-course homemade dinner awaiting you. Gimlet?”

Maybe I could get them a quick glass of wine and send them out to the garden while I cleaned up and changed clothes. They all followed me into the kitchen.

Historically, I’ve loved the fact that my kitchen is in the middle of the house. It’s where everyone wants to hang out anyway. But in that moment, I was thinking, Why is the kitchen in the middle of the house? There should be doors. Locked doors. So that I can make the food in privacy, kick the fridge closed, ignite my hot pad holder in flames, swear like a sailor.

They were all so gracious. “What can I do to help?” And I really didn’t know what to do with all that love. I’ve been a solo act for a long time now.

I wanted to say, “Oh, la. Don’t you lift a finger. What can I get you to drink?” But I was visibly rattled. My back was shooting nerve pain down my legs. And I almost snapped. I all but said, “If you could just leave me alone for half an hour, I’ll have my s*** together. But right now, I’m drinking from the firehose. And it’s all my fault. Apparently, I think it’s three decades ago.” I think I said something like: “Here’s a glass of wine. Go have a seat in the garden. Eat cheese. I’ll be out soon.”

Once we were all seated at the dinner table, and the candles were lit, and everything in its right place, one of my guests said, “Oh we need a photo! This is so beautiful!” She snapped a photo of the group and sent it to me. I’m looking at it today, sitting in my pajamas, with a sink of dirty dishes, because I wouldn’t let anyone help clean up, and after they left, my back was so wrecked, I couldn’t deal. They all look so happy in the photo. I… do not.

What would it take for me to be happy as a single hostess? Does it depend on saying yes to help? To letting things be a little rough around the edges, because I am most definitely that. To give up perfection altogether? I mean, why is it so hard to admit our imperfection? Why is there shame in it? And just what was I trying to prove, anyway, by splaying myself supplicant on the altar of that party? That I’m capable of creating magic without any help from a spouse, partner, or guest? That I’ve held down the fort and am thriving solo? Probably. I should know better than to try to prove myself to anybody. So enter: shame. Shame that I’m only one person, after all, not many. Shame that I don’t know how to say yes to help. Shame that I wasn’t able to show my true self. And shame that I set myself up for all of it.

Rolling in shame never helped anyone. Instead, I finally feel ready to receive the lesson I’ve been avoiding: Proving myself as a happy, gracious hostess isn’t at all a useful undertaking. In fact, it’s a myth that needs to die. It’s time to be a proud, and healthy team of one. I learned yesterday that I need to value my energy level, my body, my time, my reality, not what once was. And that means: I need to not over-produce and not overwhelm myself. I need to have the courage to say yes to the “Can I help?” question, rather than consider it a defeat.

Especially when we are a team of one, we need to learn to truly value our happiness and well-being. And that means, we likely need to drop the quest to impress people or prove ourselves. Can’t parties just be an act of generosity, to others and to oneself? So my next dinner party? I’m thinking: potluck. Want to come? Please bring a side dish.


Image: by Engin Akyurt, licensed under CC 2.0.

Laura Munson
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  1. Laura, I love this story. However, you are so much more than a hostess. You changed my life. You gave me the confidence to say, “I’m a writer.” to the world. I am forever grateful the universe put me on your path.


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