Singular moments in life leave an impression so strong that we have to stop and ask. If I hadn’t experienced what I did, would I be the same person I am today? I will always wonder about one particular winter night in the mid 1970s.
At 13, I’d grown up around parties of all kinds. My parents regularly entertained business guests and friends from around the world, and I was privileged to share in their company and learn about their cultures. As a young girl, I dined with business people from Hong Kong and students from Tokyo, shared barbecue with the Aussies and Kiwis and traded stories with Brazilians and Danes. Our home brimmed with culture, and we never lacked for international companionship.
Even so, nothing prepared me for the Gustafson’s spectacular Christmas soiree in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Though at the time I lived in a luxuriously appointed suburb of New York City, where historic Colonial homes nestled next to mansions of architectural importance, and where the rolling lawns and flower gardens were lush, I hadn’t grown up in the storied community. My blood wasn’t as blue as some of my school friends; my lineage didn’t include bank presidents and Constitutional lawyers from the Ivy League and Daughters of the American Revolution who finished their fine educations at one of the Seven Sisters. We were regular people, transferred yet again to live amongst the wealthy and well-schooled.
When my best friend Suzanne and I were asked to dress in our very best party clothes and help Mr. and Mrs. Gustafson make their party run smoothly, we had no idea what to expect. It was the new era of Ralph Lauren and Polo, and Martha Stewart and her Turkey Hill Road estate weren’t yet household names. Darien was and still is a grand dame of society, with classic traditions and heritage that surpass a single generation. As a new home to me, Darien was at once elegant and aloof.
But on that chilly winter night in the company of my new best friend, when the candlelight shimmered and the snowflakes fell, I was invited to join and observe that tight circle of community, if only for a few precious hours.
The Gustafson’s home was grand in a Connecticut sort of way with scarred wood floors and thick crown moldings and heavy paneled doors. One small room led to another, with quaint sitting areas and bookcases and portrait gallery walls basking in the amber glow of candle and fire light.
I can’t recall the exact layout of the home, nor can I describe the décor. What I can recall are the exquisite details of the party that played out like a perfect symphony, ingraining them onto my mind forever like the white lights glittering in the snow-dusted trees in the yard.
Outside, on the porch beside the living room, a trio of Mr. Gustafson’s freshly caught pheasants added an air of landed gentry and rugged masculinity to the ambience. A fresh pine tree festooned with red satin bows and cherished heirloom ornaments and children’s beloved creations anchored the space, while pewter tureens of pine cones and boughs topped tables and shelves. Subtle expressions of Christmases past were scattered about, none overpowering, and none so small as to be missed.
The scents of that snowy evening stay with me so many years later. Cloves and cinnamon and simmering wine perfumed the air with promise, while the crisp aroma of pine punctuated the space. As the “Nutcracker Suite” played in brilliant melodic backdrop, the guests began to arrive in a lovely procession.
Mrs. Gustafson herself was exquisite in taffeta and lace, the picture of a hostess with natural-born style and grace. Couple by couple, she warmly greeted the ladies who drew up to the house wrapped in furs and velvet, and their men who stood handsome and confident in camel hair and flannel, meerschaum pipes in their pockets.
As soft conversation turned to jovial chatter, on gleaming silver trays we passed canapés and delicate pastries of wild mushrooms with cream to guests sipping champagne and holiday cheer. We offered sprinkle-topped butter cookies and sugared nuts from antique crystal platters, and filled delicate china cups with fragrant coffee and tea. Far too soon, the guests bid their goodbyes, the party ended and we gathered the detritus of a spectacular event.
Those few hours, elbow to elbow with society’s beautiful people, in that poetic Connecticut home with the fine wines and elegant finger foods, my awareness of the way I wanted to be as an adult was heightened. On that crisp December night, my entertaining style was marked forever.
Mrs. Gustafson and Suzanne, I thank you for including me, wherever you may be.
Give abundantly, and mind your party manners.
You never know when you might leave an indelible impression on someone in your home.