A guest is good or bad because of the host who makes being a guest an easy or a difficult task. –Eleanor Roosevelt
When I was a child, there was a book called Miss Jellytot’s Visit that formed my first impression of what it means to be both a host and a guest. Nine-year-old Katie O’Dea watched her mother host college friend, Irene, in the guest room of their home. The bed was made up with the best pink linens and quilts in the house. There were big, soft feathery pillows in pink pillowcases that you could sink back into, and a rose on the bedside table. The towels were fluffy and white in the spotless bathroom. Their guest was served breakfast in bed on a tray with another rose alongside. There was an assortment of magazines and books to peruse in lounging leisure.
Katie dreamed of being a guest in her own house, staying in that comfortable room with nothing to do but dress up in fancy clothing, wear French perfume, and be waited on like “Aunt Rene”. With her parents’ indulgence, she arrives as a “visitor” from out of town, calling herself Miss Jellytot because that was the name of her favorite cookies. Everyone stayed in their assigned roles. Katie was treated like an adult the entire visit.
Of course, there were problems with all of this. The first was that Aunt Rene stayed for two weeks and never lifted a finger as she had come “to rest and relax.” Mrs. O’Dea was not sorry to see her friend leave on the train. The second was that Katie learned being a grown-up meant missing pleasurable childhood activities like playing outside with friends, going to swim parties, or getting a new puppy. She couldn’t wait to end her “visit” after six days and be a kid again. Lessons: Don’t jump into adulthood when you haven’t finished the fun of being a child. And don’t overstay.
The story left me with “how-tos” carried into my own adult life. As a guest in someone else’s home, I stay no more than three days, with exceptions for family birthings or need-to-help home stays. I also like to set up a room for overnight guests that is cozy and welcoming and well-outfitted. A room that I would enjoy spending time in, too.
In early December, a cousin’s memorial service created the need to travel to St. Louis while I was already out of town for another event. My niece, Rebecca, has a large home with a guest bedroom and bath separate from the family’s living space. It was mine for the weekend. I flew in from across the country on a blustery wet night, rented a car and drove to her house knowing that everyone was out for the evening.
It couldn’t have been a better welcoming. I was warmed to my soul. Shrugging off coat in the back door entry, I smelled something delicious. Christmas lights and decorations were twinkling in every room. There was soft music coming from a speaker in the kitchen. Simmering on the stove was a pot of homemade chicken soup. There was a place setting on the counter next to a fresh baguette, butter, and a note inviting me to help myself.
I sighed gratefully and headed for the bedroom. Lights were on, a little gift in a colorful bag was on the bedside table next to a carafe of water. White towels were folded on the chair by the window. The bed was layered with white quilts, comforters, and billowy pillows.
Back in the kitchen, I poured a glass of wine, served myself a bowl of soup with bread and butter on the side, and said aloud, “This woman gets it.”
Hosting overnight guests involves providing for them in surprising and generous ways, going out of your way to roll out the welcome mat, even if you aren’t there to open the door. My niece checked all those boxes.
Rebecca is an interior decorator and organizer extraordinaire in her home and for her clients.
On a previous visit I noticed an opportunity where I could be of help. There is a small, temperature-controlled wine room in the basement. I had seen bottles of red and white and bubbly of differing vintages and values pushed randomly in slots, shelves a-jumble with gifted booze never opened and never intending to be drunk, gift bags strewn on the floor. If trying to find something special to serve and drink, well, there was no order.
My offer–to sit with her [and a charcuterie plate and two glasses of wine], pull everything off the shelves, put like vintages together, separate great bottles from the good and the cooking variety, use the label maker, toss out or give away questionable items like Ever Clear [!], horrible flavors of vodka, and other unidentifiable poisons. We set aside whisky that I might drink on another visit. She was thrilled. I was happy to spend time in a companionable activity in return for her hospitality. Win-win, like a thank you note in action.
Guest: Be genuine. Be remarkable. Be worth connecting with. –Seth Godin
Hosting at home can also be a celebratory party, a dinner, an outside barbecue. The host sets the stage while guests bring their exuberant mood, conversational banter, and best engaging self to round out the table. The most memorable get-togethers with family or friends have free-flowing discussions, storytelling, perhaps some soul searching, and laughter.
To me it has always been clear that a dinner party is about what is said, not what is eaten. There would always be wine and salad and bread and stew: chocolate and fruit and nuts and sparkling cold duck. But those were just the props — the conduits for funny and real and meaningful conversation; the set pieces of a lively, engaged, lingering old-school dinner party. The one that I have been chasing ever since…
–Gabrielle Hamilton, chef and author
We have a friend who masterfully slips in what he calls “the provocation” during dinner parties and casual social gatherings. It’s not confrontational and participation is optional. It’s a conversational attention grabber along the lines of “Who was an important influence in your life?” or “What is something that changed the direction of your life?” or “Have you experienced anything scientifically unexplainable, something paranormal?” Everyone chimes in because it adds another dimension to what we know about people we care about, and isn’t that why we get together in the first place? Adding detail, bridging thoughts and ideas with content, creating connection.
One more thing about being a good host and an even better guest. After years of inviting people to our home in Colorado, and for many years overseas, I have learned to enjoy late hours clean-up after the candles are snuffed and guests have cheerily said, “Good Night”. I like putting the kitchen back in order by myself or with my husband and thinking about the best parts of the evening. Again, from Gabrielle Hamilton:
I’ve always been against the insistent, well-meaning cleanup brigade that convenes in the kitchen before anybody has even digested…When I invite you over, I mean it. I mean: Sit down. I will take care of you. I will buy the food and get the drinks and set the table and do the cooking, and I will clean up after. And when I come to your house, you will do the same. I will get to have the honor of being a guest. To perfectly show up, 10 minutes after the appointed time, with a bottle in hand for you, to bring my outgoing, conversational self, my good mood, my appetite, and to then enjoy all that is offered to me, and to then get my coat at the very end and leave without having lifted a finger. It is just the greatest thing of all time…
Yes, it is.
- Rebecca uses bamboo sheet sets from Cozy Earth. They live up to the advertising “sleeping on a cloud”. www.cozyearth.com
- Gabrielle Hamilton wrote the memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter. Her writing voice is very engaging. She also owned and cooked at Prune Restaurant in East Village, NYC until the first Covid shutdowns in 2020. She contributes occasional articles to the NY Times.
- For additional stories, international anecdotes, and photos about hosts and guests there is this: The Grown-Up Table.