I strive to be the best party guest on the planet.
I’ll bring the champagne. I’ll wear a costume. I’ll dance with your Aunt Gladys. I’ll listen raptly, cocktail in hand, to your boring co–worker wax on about Estonian wool felting.
However, when it comes to actually planning the party, I get a little overwhelmed. Just planning tea and snacks for my daughter and her stuffed animals stresses me out. (Really, the damn cow puppet has to be a vegetarian? The elephant won’t sit next to Polly Pocket because of “family issues”? Mommy’s just going to add a little slosh of grown–up juice to her tea, m’kay?)
In the months leading up my son’s bar mitzvah last week — an intimate affair of every single blood relative residing in the Western Hemisphere — it was very tempting to lock myself in the bathroom and read back issues of National Geographic. Fortunately for me and my weak constitution, one of the high points of living here is that Savannah already knows how to throw a party — all I had to do was show up.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Jewish milestone of the bar mitzvah (bat mitzvah = girls), it is when a boy becomes a man and his parents and grandparents go broke celebrating the miracle that they have kept him alive this long. In my husband’s large and illustrious Southern family, a bar or bat mitzvah starts Thursday afternoon and does not end until the host family falls into a deep coma on their sofa Sunday afternoon, forcing everyone else to either do the dishes or leave.
Having never attempted to plan anything of such magnitude (my mother and mother–in–law took over our wedding plans after my husband and I announced our intentions to incorporate the dog), I was very grateful when Mindy Nash of M. Nash Events suggested her services. I’m pretty sure “therapist” is not part of an event planner’s pay grade, but Mindy managed to talk me out from under my kitchen table many times over the last six months as I tried to navigate the world of lined invitation envelopes and water bead centerpieces.
Even printing up a simple booklet for the Saturday synagogue service had me apoplectic. I found another angel in Ena Humphries at OfficeMax on Abercorn, who gently guided me to her desk after she found me at the copier, weeping over trying to print eight pages backwards, kosher–style. (“Darlin’. That’s not how you use a stapler.”)
“It’s like planning a wedding!” people kept exclaiming, which does provide a certain context, except only one person is being honored and he’s not old enough to get married, let alone drive. But I needn’t have worried about my party-planning insecurities, because our Hostess City had it covered.
We booked a block of rooms at the swanky–but–reasonable Marshall House, omitting to our guests that it may be the most haunted hotel in America. Ever the consummate hospitality professionals, the front desk fielded phone calls all weekend long from our young Raleigh cousins about things going bump in the night. Chef Brian Palefsky, general manager Danny Steinfeldt and the rest of the 45 Bistro staff served everyone spectacular meals on Friday evening and Sunday morning, and James and Rex at the bar kept ‘em coming. Adam Wilkins of Oglethorpe Tours ferried our party visitors to and fro and around town so they could take full advantage of our to–go cup policy.
The Saturday morning service was the main event, and our boy sang like an angel up into the hallowed heights of Congregation Mickve Israel. My dear husband, normally a real cut–up who enjoys punctuating dramatic moments with chicken noises, gave a speech that didn’t leave a dry eye in the room. Then it was time to get our party on:
Working within our budget, Mindy transformed American Legion Post #135 into a kickin’ nightclub with columns of colored lights from Advanced A/V— a brilliant dÉcor option that was a fraction of what it would have cost to fill the room with flowers. She also had the idea of renting black couches from Aaron’s Furniture on the cheap-cheap to create a “VIP section” for the tweenagers.
Dreamweaver Photography squeezed in a photobooth next to the bar, near a basket of party favors (inexpensive nylon “Club Lightning” backpacks from Advertising Specialty Services.) The Legion’s Dan “Agent” Mulder remained serene as a Buddha during it all.
The expenses mounted, but my wardrobe wasn’t one of them: I rocked a six–dollar blazer from the new Goodwill on Broughton and my dear departed bubbie’s sequined butterfly blouse. (To paraphrase the song of the moment, Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop,” I wore my grandma’s clothes, and if I do say so myself, I looked incredible.)
Our guests marveled at Betty Bombers chef Seth Musler’s delectable catering — especially the popcorn chicken mixed with actual kettle corn and the blue kids’ drinks that matched the bar mitzvah boy’s hair. The chocolate fountain was pure Bacchanalian decadence but so worth seeing the children’s mad delight, and the cupcakes by Natasha Gaskill had every face streaked with Nutella frosting.
Savannah’s favorite house band Soap did a tremendous turn with “Hava Nagila” as we danced the hora and lifted the boy up on a chair just like in the Old Country, and they forged a new family tradition with the group sing-a-long of The Lumineers’ “Hey Ho.”
See, in spite of me, the entire weekend went off without a hitch. Even Mother Nature was in cahoots, holding back rain for the weekend and bursting out all over in azaleas, daffodils, freesias and camellias.
I imagine some might sniff that such a to–do was a bit much for a 13 year–old boy–man with blue hair. But all of us, including the bar mitzvah boy, understood that this shebang wasn’t really about him. The point of what our people call a simcha is to gather all our loved ones and community in a single place to express our gratitude for putting up with us.
And maybe to brag a teeny bit that, yes, we raised this excellent kid and forced him to learn enough Hebrew to stand in for Rabbi Robert Haas for a day.
Our guests clapped us on the backs as they left Sunday afternoon, sated and absolutely enchanted with Savannah.
But I can’t take an ounce of credit for any of it.
All I did was unlock the bathroom door.