I had dinner last night with some of my favorite people in the whole world. Really. It was pretty extraordinary. One of them was new, I had never met him. I realize now, I had read a few of his poems in college.
He was the date of my friend’s mother who had invited her son’s friends to dinner at Cashin. My friend’s mother is a sculptor and an actress and generally artistic person. She lives her life in a way that would be very pleasing to me. She has the luxury of not having to worry about money, but that has little to do with it, aside from affording her the ability to do with her time as she wishes. And, while I love her creative life, what I admire most about her what she chooses to fill her life with.
About two years ago, I sat in on an overstuffed sofa with the soft sunlight of North Carolina starting to shine. The room in which I sat was connected to the kitchen. She was standing over her sink with the phone wedged between her ear and shoulder talking softly to someone. I patiently waited about twenty minutes and looked around the room at the somewhat morbid and eerie paintings her estranged boyfriend had painted that still hung in her otherwise earthy and warm home. I watched her speak for a while because even though she couldn’t have been more than five feet from me, I could only hear her murmur softly spoken words and sounds. Her face looked eager and interested in the caller.
When she hung up the phone she smiled, “That was Alan,” her dear writer-friend. He calls almost every morning to check-in on things, she said. How wonderful, I thought, to have friendships that are almost like romantic relationships. She went on with her cooking and told me stories of her two sons, now grown, both of which were sleeping down the hallway.
At another visit, she had a dinner party for us (well, mostly for her son who we had all accompanied to Chapel Hill). She invited all of her dear friends to sit at her large wooden dinner table and eat together. I don’t remember what we ate, though I know it was very good as she is a wonderful cook, but I do remember the people. Many of them were various combinations of writer, artist and professor. There was an energy in the room, what I would imagine it feels like when you know you are about to engage in an evening with people who you respect professionally as much as you adore personally. One woman who was not there was Daisy. She was spoken of as a much beloved woman, and to apologize for her absence, she had sketched the hostess a drawing on a long sheet of paper. That evening, I listened to conversations about stories in the New Yorker, African-American themes in literature, teaching creative writing classes with freshman and a recent obsession with sculpting hands in clay.
I had very little to contribute. And, it was by far one of the more entertaining evenings that I have ever had. I think it’s because she keeps a salon of sorts. A Southern Salon. But this is not your regular salon. As is with all things Southern, there is a gentility about it. Where thoughtful words are shared and many funny stories regaled. There is plenty of wine and food and usually an eccentric or two in the bunch. I remember telling one fellow about what I was doing in graduate school, which proceeded into a discussion on politics as the phrase “I live in Washington, D.C.” is want to do.
During that dinner, I often glanced at the hostess. She would be gazing at her son sitting among her dearest friends. She would be telling a story or two in that disarming North Carolina accent. I think it was the candles she lit on the table that made her cast a soft radiance, but it could have just been her company. I don’t know how many people are able to fill their life with things that they treasure. As if she had carefully selected what people and moments in her life she would want most.
She seemed even happier last night as she brought her Southern Salon to the nation’s capital. I don’t know if it is her new poet-boyfriend, who did not mind my rambling on about why Degas is not that same for me as Renoir and why Luncheon of the Boating Party made me sad. I’d imagine most of it was her being there with her son who she thought seemed more content with how his life was going than she had seen in a long time. Thoughts like those comfort mothers more than any. At one point, she looked around the table, seeming both pleased and grateful all at the same time.