Back in the spring of 2014 our immigration attorney laughed at us when we told her how we wanted to manage our wedding and reception, and that’s how we ended up getting married at the courthouse on a Thursday afternoon that fall.
We’d already reserved the hotel for a reception dinner in Dublin (for October 2015—fully a year after we married!). But most of our American friends didn’t go to Dublin. So we set yet another date to have a party in our backyard—which was our original plan. Only now it would be just a party, not a wedding, and I would be just a hostess, not a bride.
Planning Is Everything
We’d had plenty of time to think about it. And we started out with a few firm ideas. Like, we knew we would hire Joe—my ex-husband, don’t laugh—to cater, because he makes the best fried chicken in the world. No, really.
So there were ideas, and there were more ideas. And they were all swirling around in my head in a long, never-ending to-do list.
In January 2016, I finally sat down with all my scribbbled notes and made a big list. I discussed it with my good friend Jenny, who knows more than a thing or two about planning a party. (She also volunteered to be our “party day manager.” We hastily took her up on it before she could change her mind.) Then I revised the list, and created a week-by-week—and day-by-day—schedule. Anything that could be done in advance was spread out over the weeks leading up to the party, because I don’t like to rush anything, and I especially dislike running around like a crazy person on the day of a big event.
And this worked. Which is to say, everything got done in a way that we could enjoy and be satisfied with the doing of it. During the last few days, folks would call or come by to see if we needed help and say things like, “I know you must be terribly busy” or “Are you freaking out yet?” but, no, we weren’t and we didn’t. Because we’d planned and prepared.
It wasn’t that hard, y’all. I’m naturally organized, a natural list-maker, so it’s easier for me to “think” in a list. I made the list, ran it past Gerry, revised it … I checked it daily. I spent time thinking about it and revising it on the fly. That thinking time was important. 🙂
Some of the Best Plans We Made
This was a springtime backyard party, and it would be fully dark by 8pm. How to keep folks from tripping over the roots of the maple tree? Well, we have a significant number of strands of white “Christmas lights” running across the pergola that covers one end of the deck. They’re pretty bright. But I didn’t want anyone in my flower beds either, so I planned to line the beds with candles in glass jars. Over the course of 2 years (yep!) I gathered more than 350 glass jars and removed the labels. (I asked my Facebook friends for help and they responded—without even knowing what I planned to do with them.) We used these jars on the tables too. We also bought some inexpensive LED lanterns and light strings and Gerry spent days lining the fence and wrapping trees. We had trial runs and laughed out loud with delight. It looked spectacular on the night—and folks gasped when Gerry turned on the pergola lights.
Yes, you heard me. Some years ago I discovered, on a trip to Ireland, Áine Chocolates—an artisan chocolate that I just love. We’d placed little boxes of them at each place setting at our dinner party in Dublin. So we got to thinking … and Gerry placed a bulk order in early March (so it would ship while it was still cold everywhere along the route from Dublin to Murfreesboro). Our guests loved them.
Parking in a neighborhood gets tricky when there are so many guests expected. There’s an office building just outside our neighborhood with sixty parking spaces (yes, I counted) and no one’s there on Saturdays, so we could park people there … but it’s .4 mile from the house. Would people want to walk in their dressy shoes? I wouldn’t. So we hired a couple young men to circulate in our car and another borrowed car. No one would have to wait more than five minutes to be ferried to the house. And it worked!
- Live music
We’d heard a singer, Jeff Blaney, playing with a string bass player at a wedding two years before, and thought they were very good. When I investigated, I learned they were also affordable. I lined them up in December. As it turns out, Jeff plays at a little country restaurant not far from our house most Friday nights, so we went out to see him earlier in the month to introduce ourselves. He’s fabulous.
We knew our friends would take photos, but it’s always hard to collect them later, so we paid a friend’s son to take lots and lots of photos. Also, we hung a large picture frame from the pergola. It wasn’t a “photo booth”—it wasn’t enclosed, and we offered no props, no backdrop, nothing. And yet … people were lined up to have their photo made in this spot. Great decision!
We both watched the weather obsessively for weeks before the party, but in Tennessee you just can’t tell, really, until the moment. So when we ordered tables and chairs, we also ordered a big tent. I didn’t want to use it—thought it would spoil the “look”—but on Saturday morning the weather was iffy so we had them install the thing, and we ended up being glad we did, because it rained steadily from 6pm until 7pm. Lesson: have a rain plan. (Thanks, Jenny!)
I bought some chalk markers, painted chalkboard paint on some cabinet doors, and started writing up signs (“Powder Room” and “We’re in the backyard” and “Grab a cold one here”) about three weeks before the party. I like to think our guests noticed them … but in retrospect I’m not so sure. 🙂
Back in January I set up a Facebook event page to remind people about the party. (We’d mailed invitations—to both parties—back in June 2015 and told them we’d remind them about the Tennessee party.) This page ended up being great fun. I got to remind people about the dress. I told them who was catering and that we’d have live music. I showed photos of the signs I was lettering. Using an event page also allowed me to post articles I’d written for this blog about things to do in Tennessee. And people got to see who was coming, make connections, and talk online together.
- Eating early
I asked the caterer to come early so that we and our family, houseguests, and friends who were helping could eat before everyone started arriving. I also invited our young valet and the musicians to come by and eat. This was absolutely the smartest decision we made. Because once people started arriving promptly at 6pm, there was no time to eat. I was on my feet, talking, until nearly midnight.
At the last minute, it occurred to me that people might bring gifts, and they would need to go somewhere. So I threw a tablecloth on the dining room table, moved the chairs up against the wall, and called it good. It turns out it was a splendid idea.
But wait—it wasn’t all just, you know, fun and games. 🙂 When Gerry and I returned from Ireland in late October, we had a list of projects we’d long been planning to do when Gerry retired and moved to Tennessee. Things like paint the inside of the house (it needed it; we’d moved in in 2007); install a hot tub (for health reasons); replace the ugly (truly ugly) tile in the foyer; and have the carpets cleaned, among other things.
Now here he was.
And so were the holidays. We didn’t get started until the first of the year. And you know, when you paint a house with all your stuff in it, all that stuff has to be moved. (Which is why my office didn’t get painted. I had a lot of work and multiple deadlines, and would have—no joke—had a meltdown. It was not happening.) So we moved our stuff for painting, and moved it again for carpet cleaning. We built a new wing on the deck, dealt with planning inspections and electricians and OMG it was pretty crazy around here in February and March and April.
During this time we also bought a new car (long planned) … and adopted a dog. Suzy. (She’s a gem.)
We’d long known Gerry’s nephew, Eoin, and Eoin’s wife, Tracy, would be staying with us (they flew in from Dublin and arrived Thursday). And we knew my niece, Alli, and her husband, Sabas, wanted to stay here too (because they and Eoin and Tracy are good friends); they flew in on Friday. No problem—we have two guest rooms. Alli’s mom—my sister, Jill—and dad, Barry, were driving out from California on a two-week vacation, pulling their small Airstream. They also arrived Thursday. My son and his girlfriend drove in Thursday, too, and stayed the weekend (they’re in grad school at a university about ninety miles away). We had room for them too.
My friends Gwen and Greg had offered to take any houseguest overflow, if we had it, and I ended up having my friends from Ohio, Cindy and Tom, stay with them. The four of them hit it off, which made me happy. I have seen photos of Tom—an accomplished cook—whipping up breakfast in the Wattses’ kitchen. 🙂
But we had guests well before the party! My best friend from high school (yes, I keep them that long) and her husband flew out from Oregon the week before—so that we’d have time to visit before the madness. We spent a day and a half with Mike and Kathy before they went off to tour Memphis for a few days.
A couple days later, my friends Cyndi and Gregg were driving to south Georgia (our party was to be at the end of their vacation getaway) and realized they’d drive right by Murfreesboro. She texted: would we have dinner with them? I texted: Yes, and where are you planning to stay? Well, they ended up staying here (I insisted), and we sent them off the next morning after a good breakfast.
These little flying visits—as well as the hair appointment and pedicure and strawberry-picking and various other errands—made the days leading up to the party very festive indeed. And because I’d finished all my work-work, met all my deadlines early, I was able to enjoy them stress free.
The Big Day
There were certain things that couldn’t be done until the day, but they were few. The kids got up and out, sightseeing. My son had a gig in Nashville. So it was just Gerry and me.
We ran over to the grocery store that morning for fresh flowers, and I got some marked-down roses. “Good for a day,” they say about these past-their-sell-date flowers. I purchased some fresh hydrangeas and baby’s breath to fill in. (Late the next Wednesday the hydrangeas were long gone but the roses were still fabulous. Go figure.) So I spent some time making two pretty arrangements to freshen the house a little. I also made a couple herb bouquets cut from the garden.
The tables and chairs and tent arrived mid-morning. Shortly thereafter, Jill and Barry showed up with more self-picked strawberries and took the arrangement of tables in hand. Later the kids all showed up and suddenly the jars and candles got put out.
Everybody helped out at just the right moment, and no one had to do too much to pull it all together. This was all part of my plan: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Easy does it. We all sat on the deck, relaxing and enjoying the fine weather for a while before everyone went off for naps. (I, of course, posted photos on Facebook rather than napping. Ha!)
Aside from making sure the bathrooms were clean, I did not clean the house. There’d be a hundred people in and out of it—better to clean after!
About an hour out from P-Time, I was working with Jenny to get the desserts set up, while the caterer was setting up outside on the driveway under the tent. The only little hitch we had during that time was the young man I’d been talking with about driving to pick up people from the parking lot was supposed to bring a second driver—but he showed up alone. Kerry quickly jumped in, however, to drive the other car, and all was well. We all sat down and ate. The first guests arrived.
And Then It Rained
It started to rain promptly at 6pm. I must admit, it took an act of faith for folks to leave their homes in the rain and come to a backyard party! But I’d told people on the Facebook event page that we had a rain plan—and we did. The tent was just big enough to cover most of the back driveway. And we’d purchased rolls of plastic dropcloth to roll out on the latticework atop the pergola, just in case it rained all night.
But it didn’t! It rained, gently, for an hour and quit. Just long enough for everyone to have to arrive in the rain. Just long enough to flatten my hair-do. (Of course!) Yet when we talked about it later, we decided the rain was a good thing. It forced everyone under the tent at once. It was a bonding moment. Strangers talked to each other.
Guests started arriving … and because of the tent guy-wires we had this bottleneck of people, and they were all carrying gifts and OMG. So we had a little receiving line, and it was great, and we took photos and I got to talk to (almost) everyone as they came in. I wasn’t happy about the way my hair looked—or the way it was going to look—in the photos, but what can you do?
So it all worked.
The musicians—the Jeff Blaney duo—were supposed to start at 7pm, and just before that, Jeff and I walked around the yard, which was a little damp. The rain had stopped. We had a rain plan, I told him: we could open the garage door and put them in there. They’d be dry. But I’d wanted them to play up on the deck. It would be prettier. We went back and forth about it, but Jeff said, “If it starts to rain again, we’ll have to move, and we won’t be playing for part of the time you’ve paid for. If it were me, I’d put us in the garage.” So I did. Discretion being the better part of valor, and all that.
And they were fabulous, y’all. Really good. Such good sports too! But I look at this photo and am just mortified (because the garage had become this catch-all hiding place for the party prep, and also because it smelled like cat pee). At the end of the night, I told them (Jeff and Geoff) I was mortified, and they both just laughed. “Oh, we’ve played worse venues than this,” they each said. Then Geoff got out his phone calendar: “I can tell you for a fact that the place I’m playing next Tuesday is much worse than your garage.”
There Were Lots of Great Moments
I don’t even know where to start with this. It was a wonderful party. People showed up. They made connections all on their own. (Facebook, though I know some folks don’t like it, is a wonderful tool for this. People from across the country who’d seen each other’s names on my Facebook page found each other in our backyard. Whoa.) Folks ran into each other who didn’t know they were each friends of mine. And folks showed up with the most interesting plus-ones! There were book people and old-high-school-friends people and people from a job I had twenty years ago. There were current friends and family friends and neighborhood friends. It was way, way cool.
It was such a cool party—and I’m not just saying this because it was our party—that people sent us thank-you notes! (That’s never happened to me before—although I suspect I’m revealing that I’m really uncouth, and that it’s a Miss Manners thing and these people were more sophisticated—and nicer—than I am.) Just today I had lunch with a friend who told me how wonderful it was that in your fifties you finally started getting invited to the sort of parties you wished to be invited to when you were in your twenties. That’s how she’d described our little soiree to someone the next day. It made me happy to hear this.
Yes: it was a grown-up party. And, my friend and I decided over lunch, part of that may have had to do with the dress. On the invitation, we suggested people dress up—and they did. I loved, loved, loved seeing everyone all dressed up! There was more than one husband who seemed to feel a little awkward … and others who seemed right at home.
Also, I think everyone had a vested interest in making it a great party. People came such distances! Friends came from all over Middle Tennessee, and also from California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, and Texas. And of course we had guests from Ireland. But the party was more international than that—there were several folks who were not born American but who live here now, friends from Australia, Belize, Chile, England, Finland, France, Nicaragua, and South Africa. Wow. In fact, several people mentioned that they’d discovered it was a very international party. My friend Cindy told me later, “Gerry’s nephew told us the state of Oregon is named for an Irishman. You know, O’Regon. Cracks me up!” Oh, those Irish. 🙂
There were, of course, plenty of book people there. Many of them knew of each other from conferences, but it was a little different to run into them at a party in someone’s backyard. “We met your friends Cyndi and Greg,” someone emailed me later, “and I heard how he accidentally published her first book. Too cute!” My friend Tricia, a college professor with a book of her own about to release with a big university press, said she’d never seen so many published authors in one place. Ah, I love the book biz.
I was relieved that—in spite of the fact that I wasn’t able to get around and introduce and orchestrate (the thing I’m usually doing at parties)—people did it themselves. So I asked—in the moment, on Facebook, and privately—“Do you have a story? Did you have a moment?”
Yes, they did:
- Eoin enjoyed speaking with my friends Gabe and Tanya. “They were lovely.”
- Tracy was thrilled to catch up with Rebecca, who’d been seated at their table at the dinner party in Dublin. (You know ’Becca from this post.)
- Christy told me a story about sitting down at one of the tables on the lawn and discovering “mystery booze” in a little square bottle. I knew immediately that she was talking about my son’s homemade limoncello. She and our friend Annie decided to sample it without knowing what it was, and both pronounced it excellent.
- I loved getting to talk to people I haven’t set eyes on since the last wedding or funeral, like my friend Brad. And later seeing photos from our party on Facebook pages, sometimes from people I never expected to post party photos. In fact, seeing photos taken in that silly photo frame used as Facebook profile photos—there was a lot of that.
- Lots of people enjoyed the Irish chocolates. 🙂
- Several people mentioned the vintage photos in the downstairs bathroom: “Wondered to myself who the people in the photographs in your half bath were.” That post is coming. And yes, the people in those photos are all family.
- My former sisters-in-law were in town (from Nevada) to visit, and they came too. Later they sent me this photo. I’m so proud to still have this family in my life.
- Lots and lots of people told me how good it was to finally meet Gerry. And then to hear his stock response to every query: “Everything’s perfect aside from the marriage.”
- My friend Teri printed off my blog post on Murfreesboro and she and her husband worked down the list. They showed up and Oaklands Mansion, asked for Connor—my friend who works there—and he gave them a great tour. And then they ran into him at the party, of course. 🙂
- My moment: Everyone kept trying to adjust my necklace—thinking the magnetic clasp was turned around. But really it was a necklace with two pieces, and the connecting clasps were meant to show. Ha. Trick necklace!
- Many of our friends had seen photos of our rescued dog on Facebook, and wanted to see her. We heard later that several people went upstairs to visit her crate. Much later (after 10pm, after the musicians and caterer left and the gate was closed), we brought her down to the yard, where she happily mingled with our lingering friends. Around midnight I was sitting on the deck with Alison, who was observing Suzy with friends. “Oh, she’s a leaner.” As Labs are. Yes, she leans up against us, and it’s very endearing.
Some moments I didn’t know about myself until I got a look at the photos that were taken. Whole families got together behind the picture frame.
They were playful.
Groups of friends.
The cousins: my brother’s son, sister’s daughter, and my son.
And, in fact, my brother, sister, and I had a photo made behind the picture frame too.
Toward the end of the night, action at the picture frame picked up again. Last call!
Good Night and Joy Be With You All
My favorite moment, though, came about like this. There’s a song sung in Ireland at wakes and funerals … and also at the end of the night, at closing time, or at the end of a party. It’s called “The Parting Glass” (you can see an article I’ve written about it here). Because Gerry is Irish, because this was the last of our wedding “year” of celebration, and just because I love the song, I’d asked Jeff Blaney to perform it at the end of the night. (He’s of Irish heritage, has even recorded a set of Irish songs. “The Parting Glass” was not unknown to our Jeff.)
Things had quieted down by this point, and folks gathered round. And it got the attention of my Irish husband and family. Their reaction was a boisterous one, and Jeff seemed to be energized by that—he went right into “The Fields of Athenry,” another Irish folk song that everyone in Ireland knows the words to. So we had a little singalong in the backyard. (I made sure we got this on video, too, and you can see it here.)
This post has gotten very long, so I’ll stop here and finish it in part 2.