(by Jennifer Irwin)
Everything my mother Ellie did had a certain magical quality to it, but her greatest magic happened when she entertained. After she passed away, I realized that I was in charge of making the holiday magic and carrying on the family traditions, but I wasn't entirely clear what our traditions were. The only memory branded in my brain was to remain flexible because one never knew who would be at our table and what sort of food we might be eating.
Whether a guest at someone's home or hosting her own party, my mother was bigger than life—six feet tall with legs up to there and a wicked sense of humor. She was a flirt but never threatening to other women—it was her way of making everyone feel welcomed. At her funeral, at least ten women whom I had never met told me they were Ellie’s best friend.
Before guests arrived, Mom would send me outside to pick flowers and leafy branches from the yard. We’d make arrangements in tiny orange juice glasses to decorate the table. It was okay if the plates and napkins didn’t match because it was more eclectic and fun that way. The food was really secondary—she could turn a can of Campbell’s tomato soup into a gourmet meal with a drizzle of sherry, a dollop of sour cream, and a few croutons tossed on top. For most of my life, we rented a tiny cottage with only one bathroom on a grand estate located on the North Shore of Long Island, but she had the ability to turn the most rudimentary setting into a fancy soiree. In my final years of college, we purchased our first home in Stamford, Connecticut, and there my mother entertained with reckless abandon.
She prepared for parties well in advance, and I loved to be her helper, often consulting about her outfit or accessories. She could throw on a pair of jeans, a brightly colored blouse, flat sandals, and a spritz of perfume, and greet her guests with effortless elegance. (My own three sons are my fashion advisors, who learned at a young age never to say “You look fine”—it’s not a compliment—and not to touch a woman’s hair until after the party. They’re two things I learned from my mother that I inadvertently passed on to my children.)
Throughout the years, my mother built a successful career as a headhunter and became the first female partner at an executive search firm in New York City. She was not adept at remembering names, and in that sort of business, only someone with the utmost of grace could get away with such challenges. She read people like no one I have ever known—it was a gift that brought her much success in both her career and in entertaining. She would seat the most unlikely people together, and I'd cringe about potential disaster, only to find them bantering and having a grand time. At one party, we had a master violinist as our guest. He brought two instruments—one was his everyday violin and the other a million dollar Stradivarius. We were told to close our eyes while he played each instrument and then guess which sounded like the prized violin. (We all got it wrong.)
Mom taught me to cook with my heart and to trust my instinct. My fondest memory of her in the kitchen was hearing her voice—perhaps an animated conversation with the cat or swearing when a pile of pots tumbled from the cabinet. Most of the time, there was music from a cassette player, and she’d sing along, out of tune, off the beat, and with total passion. She was more of a whirlwind in the kitchen than a patient, deliberate chef. When she blurted out, “I’m going to whip up some dinner,” she meant it. Inheriting this talent was useful when I became a mother with three hungry boys asking me what was for dinner. I learned to peruse the fridge, the freezer and the cabinets to make something tasty in a flash.
By my mother's side was my happy place, so I gladly took the role of her assistant. She loved to present something that she considered “fancy,” like an appetizer of cream cheese