It’s Never about the Centerpiece: The Anxiety of Entertaining

It’s Never about the Centerpiece: The Anxiety of Entertaining

Andy and I planned on going to his parents’ house for Thanksgiving dinner. Those plans changed in the sweetest of stomach-turning ways – skunks moved in under their house and sprayed the place. It seeped into pretty much everything and lingered for days. Rather than go there for dinner, his parents said they’d just pick food up and bring dinner to us. All we had to do was provide the place to eat it.

About that.

One saving grace

We have our own rodent in the house (though skunks it turns out aren’t rodents, but close enough) – a guinea pig whose cage we keep under the dining room table. We don’t mind it, and almost never eat at the table anyway, but something about eating Thanksgiving dinner with a guinea pig at Andy’s parents’ feet didn’t sit right with us.

A couple of hours before they arrived, we dragged Monty’s house out from under the table. It’s a big, clunky apparatus, so the furthest we could get without dismantling the whole thing was the middle of the living room. I figured we’d probably end up there by the end of the night, but surely talking over a guinea pig pooping in his cage is preferable to eating over one.

With the cage gone, it was weird seeing all that empty space underneath the table. But not as weird as all the empty space above it. It’s the kind of wall that needs either one gargantuan piece of artwork or a collection of smaller pieces, neither of which we have.

The one saving grace about this grossly under-decorated space was the plant that sits in the middle of the table. At least we had that!

We stepped back to survey the situation.

“What do you think?” I asked Andy.

“Looks good,” he said. “Maybe just move the plant.”

I don’t remember what I said (if anything) but the gist of what I thought (and probably conveyed) was, “What the fuck do you mean move the plant?”

“To make more room for the food,” Andy said.

Eventually Andy got it out of me (or did I force it down his throat?)

Thank goodness I had just watched last year’s Tori and Dean’s Thanksgiving special. The one where Tori proudly shows Dean the gorgeous table she’s decorated for their guests (with pumpkins that have succulents planted on top of them, for God’s sake!) and all Dean sees is a space too crowded for food because Tori has gone overboard with the decorations. Instead of defending herself, Tori just looks defeated and there was no way I was going to let that be me.

“People have big centerpieces!” I said in defense of myself to Andy (and you take that too, Dean).

I don’t remember what Andy said back to that; I’m pretty sure it was some sort of reluctant concession. But I remember with certainty what I said next because it was a big fat lie:

“I’m happy to move it,” I said.

And I did.

And I pouted.

And eventually Andy got it out of me (or did I force it down his throat?): “You are so insensitive,” I said. “You don’t know all the thought I put into using that plant as a centerpiece for Thanksgiving, do you?”

Which would be zero thought, by the way.

The truth was, this wasn’t about the centerpiece.

The problem is I relied on one of the tricks I use to minimize anxiety about an upcoming event

We’ve lived in our apartment going on 2 years and this was the first formal entertaining we’d done. Sure, we’ve had friends stop by here and there, and my mom has stayed with us a couple of times when she was in town, but this was Thanksgiving dinner. With Andy’s parents. And minutes before they arrived I realized I was embarrassingly unprepared.

I didn’t have placemats.

I only had three matching dinner plates and no dessert plates.

Our only matching silverware has black plastic handles.

I could only find two of my linen napkins so we had to use paper towels that I didn’t even bother folding nicely because the only thing more embarrassing than putting paper towels down for Thanksgiving dinner is trying to make them look pretty (the same reasoning that convinced me my old Chevette in high school looked better dirty).

The only thing we had to offer them to drink was water or ice water.

I didn’t make a single dish to contribute to the meal, not because I knew Andy’s parents were bringing plenty of food, but because I was too afraid they wouldn’t like my cooking.

It’s not that I didn’t have the means to go out and get what I needed to be a proper hostess. The problem is I relied on one of the tricks I use to minimize anxiety about an upcoming event. I prepare for it as little as possible. But while that might work for events I’m attending, I forgot to consider the regretful consequences when the event is at my house.

I haven’t always been like this

Let’s not ignore the obvious question here: What kind of grown woman doesn’t already have at least a four-piece set of decent place settings for the smallest of holiday dinners?

I’ll tell you what kind of person.

The kind of person who breaks dishes regularly (beside the point, but true). The kind of person who doesn’t prioritize the replacement of broken dishes because it never crosses her mind she’ll need more than two place settings at any one time. The kind of person who is an anxiety-riddled entertainment-phobe so afraid of being a failure of a hostess that she’d rather not try at all.

I haven’t always been like this.

When I first moved to L.A. in 2010, I hosted get-togethers in my tiny studio apartment quite a bit. I made food. I decorated tables. I dressed up.

I don’t know what happened to that part of me.

I did fail as a hostess big-time once. Regular ranch dressing ended up on the vegan side of the buffet table. “What kind of vegan ranch is this that tastes so real?” asked my new friend who just happened to work for Vegan Outreach. I told her the truth and she confided she’d been eating it all night. She left devastated and we never spoke again (unless you count the time she was our server at a vegan restaurant in Silver Lake where we pretended not to recognize each other).

But as shitty as it feels feeding dairy to a vegan, I don’t think that’s what did it.

It’s like I just phased entertaining out of my life the same way I have other anxiety-inducing things, like producing plays, drinking coffee, and taking a walk through the neighborhood for fear of running into that one neighbor I hate.

Yes, eliminating all of these things means less anxiety in my life, but it also means missing out on the parts of these things that I love.

Getting back in the game

Hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year was a good start on getting back in the game. So many things weren’t the way I wanted them, yet I managed to relax and have a good time. The food Andy’s parents brought was delicious and the plant – which Andy insisted we put back on the table – served its purpose as a centerpiece; his mom asked what it was:

“A prayer plant,” I said. “The leaves open during the day and fold up at night.”

My anxiety did return a bit when it came time to serve dessert without dessert plates, but it turns out maple custard pie served on full-size dinner plates is fucking fantastic.

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I'm a writer living in Los Angeles with my fiance Andy, our cat Spanky, and our guinea pig Monty. I'm also the founder of Plenty Woman, an inspirational, informative website that helps women manage anxiety.

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