Saturday, May 26, 2012

Alice-June Catering

My mother — widowed in mid-life with children ranging from ages 4 to 21 — did a variety of jobs to bring in extra income. None was as glamorous as her wedding catering business, and she and her friend June employed their daughters for regular Saturday afternoon gigs in various Catholic church social halls and basements: Immaculate Conception, Blessed Family, Holy Sacrament.

We skirted tables in rustles of white taffeta, draped ribbons from corner to corner, set out silver-plated tea and coffee sets. I insisted, always, on being the one to fill the sugar bowl with sugar cubes, plucked from their precisely-packed rows in pink and white boxes. In Renton, in 1970, that was about exotic as it got: sugar cubes. Great for sucking-on, even better to chew, quietly, privately.

Mints dyed to match the bridesmaids' dresses were ordered from Frederick & Nelson's, and came in flat white boxes, packed in white tissue. (Okay, they were exotic also.) Always in prim pastels: pink, green, yellow, not often blue. Rarely lavender.

We fanned napkins and rows of forks, unwrapped glass punch cups, stirred a red brew of Hawaiian Punch concentrate and 7-Up. Sometimes there was a spiked punch, the paper-wrapped bottles of vodka gurgled-in at the last minute.

We were efficient, proficient; so much that our prep was usually completed well in advance of the oncoming newlyweds and the entourage of family and friends. In that space of free time, I searched out a piano to play, pushed into a corner, old and out-of-tune, hulking uprights with yellowed ivories. Each piano was so different from the previous, and so different from the shiny spinet I played at home. I escaped into Chopin or Debussy or Scott Joplin with all the surging passion of a young teen cooped in a church basement on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

For this I was paid $10 — more than the minimum wage — and which was, to me, gold.

This all came to mind just this week when I saw an old upright piano on a sidewalk with a sign: FREE. It was raining.

Electronic keyboards are of course the affordable option these days, but I would have never found one of those in the coat closet at Assumption Parish, at the age of 14.


  1. A vivid gem of a memory. Lovely.

  2. A wonderful recollection, T. I love 'hulking uprights with yellowed ivories' - actually, all of it; every last detail. xo

  3. I don't play piano, but I've always liked the idea of a baby grand in the sitting room. Electronic keyboards don't really cut the mustard.

    I can just picture you arranging sugar cubes!