By eleven Saturday morning the tent had been erected and the caterers were busy setting up the tables, bars, and food stations. The first guests usually arrived at two, which meant that mother and I had to be fully dressed and ready to play hostess by one. My uncle arrived at noon and announced that my Aunt Sarah and the boys would be at my mother’s house shortly to help with any last minute preparations. It had been the custom for as long as I could remember that my father would begin the celebration with a family toast a few minutes before two. We all would have our flutes of champagne and he would smile, tease my mother, and then compliment her undeniable style and beauty. It was that Derby Day ritual that I most feared that first year. I decided that the only appropriate way to handle the situation was to sport my father’s derby hat and toast my mother myself.
At precisely a quarter to two I gathered my aunt, uncle, cousins and mother in the kitchen. I passed them each a glass and uncorked the champagne. I carefully filled their glasses and my own. I had determined that it would be best to keep my toast short.
“Mom, I know that this was not exactly the party that you had in mind but it will be spectacular nonetheless. You look amazing, the house is beautiful, the food smells fabulous, and the drinks are ready to be poured. Cheers!” We all lifted our glasses and smiled as though nothing was out of place. Both my mother and I slugged back our drinks in preparation for the long afternoon.
It was about quarter past two when the first caravan of guests pulled into the driveway. By the fifth year of the party, the crowd had grown large enough that my parents decided to hire valets. I loved the idea because they were usually good looking college boys wanting to earn some extra cash. My junior year of high school I was caught kissing one of them behind the tent by my uncle. He had promised to keep my secret.
Dr. Matthews and his wife, along with the Neals and Treadways exited their respective vehicles and headed for my mother. Kisses were exchanged and compliments given. The men found their way to the library where my uncle was waiting. The betting was kept inside and away from the bar. My mother always said that it would be in poor taste to allow gambling in such close proximity to the liquor. I never quite understood her reasoning as there was a wet bar in my father’s study. The women strolled through the front garden admiring the azaleas, peony, and roses. The New Dawn Rose arbor was just five days shy of its peak and its scent was intoxicating. My mother’s reputation for gardening preceded her and so it was customary for the wives and some of the men to take the time to wander the paths in search of an elusive perfume. Over the next hour and a half, guests made their entrances, found a cool beverage, and nibbled on light fare in preparation for the four o’clock croquet matches.
As a child I had mused that croquet was cartoon golf. The large mallet, the colored balls, and the silly gates humored me. It certainly did not seem a game that required much skill. I knew now that lawn games were more about drinking and socializing than sport. It was entertaining to behold a lawn full of men and women wandering with a drink in one hand and a mallet in another. In order to appear civilized, my mother always served high tea at the commencement of the tournament. While the finger sandwiches and sweets were devoured, the tea usually ran cold as most of the guests opted for a cocktail or glass of wine. Despite its unpopularity, my mother refused to stop serving tea. I grew to understand that it was less about whether or not the tea was consumed and more about the appearance of decorum. As long as tea was offered, then the croquet game remained civilized. Appearances had always been a priority to my mother. It’s all about perception, she once told me. That first Derby party without my father taught me the full meaning of those words.