(Originally published 2009)
Just as I refused to admit that I had invited the obnoxious neurosurgeon who stood over the dessert table as though the Derby pie was a patient whose opened skull required his unwavering attention, the person who invited the poofy-haired matchmaker also maintained total anonymity. Despite the buzz of everyone whispering guesses about who invited these two, it mattered little to me other than the amusement of watching the familiar eccentrics try to bust their competition.
Aunt Janet’s Derby party tradition started as any other holiday; the family gathered at her house, at her insistence, because she was the best cook, she owned the most china, and she threw the biggest tantrum if anyone rejected her offer. Of her many idiosyncrasies, the three that no one dared forget were: she didn’t want to eat or drink from paper or plastic; she would not serve from paper, plastic, or tin; and she would not allow the word ‘shit’ to pass her ears without telling the speaker just how tacky she thought it was. Walking on eggshells and biting tongues aside, everyone considered her Derby parties an annual must.
Someone mentioned the Derby party at a family reunion one year and it grew from immediate to extended family. Not all of the over-one-hundred first cousins showed up, but the ones who did brought friends when they returned the next year. As we—the nieces and nephews—aged, we brought friends, dates, spouses, their families, and eventually, our children and their friends.
Aunt Janet spent the year buying new china, looking in yard sales for official Derby glasses, growing mint for the juleps, perfecting recipes, and inviting everyone she met to the next year’s party. As you might have guessed by now, the woman who would not serve a country ham sandwich on a paper napkin or plate would also never settle for jackpot betting on the biggest horse race in the world. She booked the party at track odds, providing an even bigger attraction than free food on china.
A couple of people remember every Derby winner, how much they paid, the jockeys names, and whether or not the horse went on to win a triple crown. My mother could probably name each dish served and the year it first appeared on the menu. I would be surprised if there isn’t at least one person able to name my date each year, how many drinks certain people downed, and every incident of someone flirting with a person other than the one with whom they came.
I remember at least thirty of Aunt Janet’s Derby parties. I can list the traditional menu items, would fare well if presented with a list of names and asked to determine whether they belonged to horses, jockeys, or guests, and might be able to name my dates. With total certainty, I can document the exact amount the bookie made off me, all years combined. Zero. And, I can say that, without a doubt, the poofy-haired matchmaker is the one guest I will never forget (thank you, whoever invited her).
Before the romantics get too excited, poofy-hair did not introduce me to a man that I married the next week and lived happily ever after with, but not because she didn’t try. She gave her job as much attention and effort as the bartender who served hundreds of mint juleps that day. Within seconds of my arrival, she had scrutinized my style, posture, reception, and the bare ring finger on my left hand and decided I deserved the “the most handsome, intelligent, polite” young man at the party. I didn’t ask what made her think he wouldn’t notice me without her assistance, nor did I pull away when she grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the last spot where she had seen him.
He wasn’t where she wanted him to be but that did not discourage her. Still holding my arm, she led me through several rooms, enhancing her description of him and growing more excited as we walked. I almost felt guilty when she finally found him, and I had to tell her that I had already married him once.
Obviously an optimist, this woman overcame that little disappointment quickly and moved on to her second choice, who was my uncle. We parted ways after she introduced me to my brother, but she caught up to me again later in the day with a death-grip on the wrist of my best friend who had just arrived. I suggested that, since I knew or was related to most everyone at the party, she might consider this a hopeless cause.
I am especially grateful that she had the good sense not to take me anywhere near the dessert table and the obnoxious neurosurgeon that I accidentally invited. The list of words I would have shouted would surely have included the one that our hostess least wanted to hear.
UPDATE: Since I was single most of my life, people always tried to figure out my type and fix me up. That was a difficult project but one of my best friends finally figured it out when I was in my forties. It wasn’t about the typical things that most people list. Of course I wanted honest, intelligent, and fun – as most people would. The big attraction for me was passion about what he did. It didn’t matter what he did, just that he was passionate about whatever it was. I have no idea what this woman was looking for since she didn’t know me, my first husband, my uncle, my brother, or my friend.