In the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s in New York City, social life revolved around the dinner party. Anywhere from six to twelve people would gather at someone’s home for drinks, appetizers and a sit down dinner. This was in addition to the once or twice a year that you would give a large party, with waiters, bar tenders and a buffet dinner.

Over the years your friends got to know each other. And you got to meet new people when you went to your friends’ dinner parties. Some of these people ended up as regulars at your own parties.

My mother loved giving parties. She did it well and often. Our home was beautiful and beautifully maintained – by the housekeepers. My mother didn’t do cleaning. Or cooking. Her elaborate and delicious meals were made by the cooks she always had during those years. (Not uncommon for professionals in the city in that era).

Mom’s NY dining room set up for a buffet party

However my mom did do all of the menu planning. She spent lots of time reading recipes in magazines and clipping them out. She turned them into a giant cookbook that filled several loose leaf notebooks. I still have them in my basement. I could never part with them.

My dad and I had a great time taste testing new recipes all the time. And I don’t mean meatloaf and brownies. Mom used recipes from American, French, Italian and Asian cuisine. There was also a smattering of Austrian and Eastern European when we had cooks from those areas. The dishes would be considered high-end or gourmet by today’s standards, though some were homier than others (a favorite was home cooked fried chicken, for example).

The desserts were to die for. My father was very thin, so my mother was always trying to fatten him up. She was always trying to entice him with amazing desserts – all kinds of cakes, pies, trifles, custards and puddings, you name it. Dad never gained weight, but we did. I ended up on a diet for most of my late teenage years living at home.

I had a friend who used to joke that at most people’s homes you got Twinkies for dessert, but at Ellin’s house, you got Oeufs A La Neige or Floating Island. That was my favorite dessert as a child.

Oeufs A La Neige, or Floating Island Dessert

My mother planned her parties meticulously. From the guest list and seating arrangements to the menu, from the place settings, the crystal and good china, to the dinner table centerpiece. Fresh flowers always decorated the rest of the house as well.

For summer parties at the CT house, Mom and I filled the house with flowers from our garden, including a big fancy centerpiece for the dining room table. Every week during the summer, company or not, we always did vases and vases of flowers for the house, just for us. These were simpler and less numerous. Those long hours arranging flowers with my mom are some of my favorite memories. My grandmother would often come in to talk with us while we worked. It was a wonderful time.

Summer meant flowers to me. I loved floral arranging so much, I actually got a part-time job in a florist shop for a short while in 2002. I also went on a dried flower binge and filled my entire house with dried flower arrangements of all kinds, in all kinds of exotic containers.

I was involved in every aspect of party planning from the time I was nine or ten years old. I was also allowed to sit with the guests before and after dinner. As a teenager, I usually joined the adults at the table as well. My parents’ friends adored me. I got to know many of them very well and I grew up with them as a part of my life from early childhood, on.

As an only child, I was very comfortable with adults. And I was always respected by them. My opinion was elicited from early on, at least on topics that I could understand and comment on at my current age level. I also knew when to be quiet and just listen.

Mom’s CT dining room

My parents were well-educated, intellectual, New York City professionals. So the conversations were always exciting, animated, interesting and fun. There were always lots of loud disagreements, but never any hostility. I learned to debate someone with differing views in a civil manner.

When I was a young wife and mother in NYC in the mid 1970’s – 1980’s, I followed in my mother’s party planning footsteps. I gave regular dinner parties for four to six guests. However, I had to do all the work MYSELF, including the cooking. I’ll never forget how proud I was to cook my first dinner party for my parents and some of their friends. It wasn’t as fancy or elegant as my mom’s, but I did it all on my own!

My first real dining room in NYC as a young lawyer

What I didn’t realize was that the times were changing and social life was different than in my mother’s heyday. I had party after party and rarely got invited back to anyone’s home for dinner. The trend now was for two couples to get together by going out to dinner at a restaurant. So people would invite us out to dinner with them, but not to their homes.

It was years before I gave up the ghost and stopped slaving over dinner parties, even after I had children. I eventually gave into the ‘let’s go out to dinner’ tradition. I don’t miss the hard work that went into planning formal parties. But there was an excitement and an element of creativity involved in the process that I do miss.

I still have people over for dinner. But it’s usually one or two couples and we usually grill or order pizza. I sometimes miss the good old ‘party’ days – but not enough to go back.

Weekly Writing Challenge: DNA Analysis – Mirrored Images

DNA is a funny thing. It doesn’t kick in all at the same time. That’s why, as a toddler you may be the spitting image of your dad, but by the time you’re 30, you look like a clone of your maternal grandmother. And when you are old, you look in the mirror and you say … “Mom??” Because she died years ago, yet there she is. Alive. In you.

Me and the kid

Me and the kid

We carry the physical imprint of our ancestors. It’s obvious. Less evident are the emotional footprints left in our psyches. Positive and negative, our parents and many others change us, leave bits of themselves behind for us to absorb. Good and ill. Relationships and marriages we should have skipped. Friends who were there for us in our darkest hours and those who weren’t. The doctor who took our case when we had no money or insurance. The one who botched the surgery and left us hanging out to die. It’s all there, imprinted in the way we see the world and react to it.

We are such untidy packages, made up of bits and pieces. Funny and sad, honest and untruthful. Self-pitying and brave. Lazy, yet determined. No one is of a single piece. No one is all good, all bad, all anything except all human.

Me? Today’s me is much changed from the young, idealist who planned to fix the world. Now I know I’m not going to fix it. I make a few little tweaks here and there, but the big bad world will have to look to younger souls to get the job done. Assuming the job can be done and assuming anyone will have the power and will to give it a go.

I sound shockingly like my mother. My opinions, my way of expressing them. I thought she was so cynical, so lacking in faith. She made me crazy and I loved her anyway … and now, I am her. The plain-spoken way she had of saying what she meant without bothering to pretty it up or disguise it with polite protestations. And the tenacity. Like a dog with a bone, she never let go and neither do I. Whatever it is, I worry it to death. It gets me into trouble. With everyone. Yet I wouldn’t change it. It is my most useful and least pleasant character trait — abrasive and annoying — yet it’s the thing I appreciate most in me and which has best served me professionally (less so personally) through the years.

SeidenFamily 1963

The whole famdamily. I’m the one with rolled up jeans.

My fuse is too short (dad), but usually under control (mom), except when it isn’t (dad). My humor rarely fails me (mom) and being able to see the funny side of disaster is a saving grace in a life fraught with crises. Arthritis makes it hard for me to do much (I think I have an entire family tree to thank for that piece of DNA). The cancer is plain scary (mom, grandma, grandpa) and the heart disease (dad, you just never stop giving do you?) is an unpleasant surprise. I didn’t get a really healthy package to work with. I can’t seem to fix things as fast as they break down.

Intellectual curiosity? Definitely mom. Passion for books? Mom again. Ability to tell a funny story? Okay dad, you get a point on that one. All those jokes you told over the years … gads, I’m still telling some of them. They were hoary 50 years ago, no less now. And dad, thanks for this great line. I still use it:

“It isn’t what you don’t know that’ll get you. It’s what you do know that’s wrong.” — Albert Friedman, terrible father, great salesman.

For everyone who gave me a piece of themselves to carry along this strange path called life, I give a hearty “Thanks. I think.”

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You get what you pay for

There is a lot of internet discussion about kids having no manners, offspring who display a complete lack of civility towards adults in general and their own families in particular. I hear a lot of squawking from families how “they didn’t learn this from us!” which I find amusing. They learned it somewhere, so I’m guessing home is exactly where they learned it.

The way you treat your children, each other and the rest of the world is going to be exactly how your offspring will treat you.

Almost Dinner Time 1

When we were younger and on predictable schedules, our extended family had nightly (or nearly so) family meals. As we’ve all gotten older, I got tireder. I stopped being able or willing to cook for a crowd every night and figured there was no reason I should. I’ve been cooking family style for more than 40 years. I’ve served my time (yes, it’s punny). These days, I try to keep life and meals simple. Garry and I eat differently than the kids. My son hates fish, mushrooms and other stuff that Garry and I love. My granddaughter won’t eat anything with even a hint of hot spice. My daughter-in-law won’t eat steak. Bottom line? It’s easier and more fun to cook things Garry and I like. Nowadays, making us happy is my priority. The younger generations are welcome to do the same for themselves. It doesn’t exclude communal family occasions, but it shifts the responsibility for making it happen from me to them. Fair? I think so.

My husband and I eat together, mostly in front of the TV, because the tray tables are cozier than the big dining table. When the whole family sits down together about once a week, it’s pleasant but everyone is off in a different direction as soon as the last bite is chewed. It’s not so terrible. Everyone has their own schedule, especially “the baby” who at 16, is a young woman and wants to do her own thing. It would be odd if it were otherwise. I was much the same and I think I turned out alright.

Despite no longer dining together, we are reasonably nice to each other. We have our beefs, but “please”, “thank you”, “excuse me” and similar expressions are normal parts of conversation. Our ability to get along isn’t tied to the dinner table. If it were, we’d be in serious trouble.

Not having family dinners has not turned us into barbarians nor did having them make us civilized.


I keep reading posts deploring the loss of family dinners. It’s apparently the clearest sign of the end of society, of civilization itself. I don’t agree. Society’s disintegration is a lot more complicated than that.

All over the Internet you hear it. The younger generation has no manners! Hot flash! The older generation is incredibly rude too. As far as I can see, out in the big wide world, parents talk to each other and their children without so much as a pretence of civility. They order the kids around like drill sergeants or ignore them except to complain about them. They threaten them with dire punishment, shout at them until they are hoarse. The kids don’t hear them and eventually ignore them. The shouting combined with toothless threats becomes background noise. This is true with kids and pets. If you always yell at the dog, the dog ignores you too.

And of course there are all those posts promoting spanking as the ultimate solution. Spanking teaches only one lesson: whoever is biggest and strongest wins.  What could possibly go wrong with that?

Eventually, all offspring rebel. It’s normal, natural, inevitable and healthy. They should rebel. However, if their entire upbringing consisted of being alternately yelled at, nagged, bullied and threatened, interspersed with an occasional hug, they aren’t going to rebel then come back. They’re gone. Mom and Dad figured a bit of hugging and an occasional “I love you” would fix everything and make it all better. They were wrong.

Kids become teenagers, so now their folks want civil behavior and (drumroll) respect, but it’s a bit late. Their children don’t respect them and don’t see any reason they should. Respect isn’t something you can demand. It was and remains something you earn. You can make them fear you, but not respect you. Why would anyone expect respect if they’ve never shown any?

“My kids never talk to me.” This classic is right up there with “I don’t get no respect.”

What are they supposed to talk about? If you have some interests in common with the young adults your kids have become, it would help. Most parents are only interested in what their kids are doing so they can stop them from doing it — something of which the kids are well aware. Their folks have no interest in their world. If they aren’t outright scornful of it, they are completely disinterested and ignorant . You don’t have to love everything the younger generation does, but it doesn’t hurt to know something about it and what it means. It is a very different world than the one in which you or I grew up. No need to be proud of ignorance.

They tell the entire world how much they don’t like their kids’ movies, music, games, personal habits and relationships. They announce with enthusiasm via Facebook, the modern intra-family bulletin board, how clueless the kids are.


The kids may be clueless but so are their parents. To coin a phrase, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. I doubt most of them have made any effort to understand the world their kids live in. Why are they surprised the disinterest is reciprocal?

Kids learn by experience. They treat others as they have been treated. You can’t expect respect from kids who have never experienced it, nor good manners from youngsters whose parents wouldn’t know manners from a tree stump. Your children are unlikely to make an effort to understand you when you have never tried to understand them.

If you think you don’t need no stinkin’ manners when you talk to your children, husband, friends and strangers, your children probably agree. Why should they be nicer than you were to them?

Raising kids is the ultimate example of “you get what you pay for.” Or less.

Life hurts

My granddaughter and many of her friends are having big problems in high school. Their problems are identical to those of my generation but this generation is even more clueless than we were. They have no idea how to cope. They are like those monkeys raised with wire mothers, at a loss to relate to other monkeys. 

They don’t know the difference between a real friend and a casual acquaintance. The glib labeling from social media is, for them, the real deal … until they discover it’s not.

Becoming a misfit in high school is easy. If you are different, you are going to have social problems. How large these problems loom is a function of the vulnerability of the individual.

In the “good old days” when I was growing up, rumors and lies spread no faster than however long it took to pass the word from person to person. Today, with the click of a mouse on a Facebook page or mobile phone, the same meanness, backbiting and gossip that has always been with us can be distributed instantly to hundreds, thousands, even millions of people. It’s the same stuff, but it gets around faster.

Schools can’t deal with the problem. It’s too amorphous. They can’t control the Internet, text messages, and social media sites. It’s so easy to pick on someone. It doesn’t even have to be intentional.

A moment of pique, thoughtlessness, a casual reference, ordinary gossip can do an enormous amount of damage to a fragile adolescent ego. The electronic world is as real to them … maybe even more real … than traditional relationships. I’m not sure they understand there is a difference.

I’ve watched the dynamics of this first generation of young people for whom cell phones and computers are as ordinary as electricity was for us. I’ve watched them sit together in groups preferring to text each other rather than talk. I’ve wondered how in the world they would ever learn how to have a real relationship, to make the kind of friends that last a lifetime.

The answer is that they haven’t learned. They are lost.

They are starting to pay the price of hiding behind electronic communication. They have used it as a substitute for face time, conversation, of really being with other people.

Shy kids have had no motivation to get over it. They can’t handle even the simplest conversation. They don’t get it that people can be two-faced, dishonest, and just mean and that it isn’t personal. People are what they are. We older people could help if they let us, but we’re fossils, stupid old people suggesting they talk to each other, spend time together, that you can’t become “best friends for life” by exchanging emails.

They’ve relied on words alone, out of context of the rest of the package: facial expression and body language.  They have never learned to “read” people. They can’t see when someone is lying.

Growing up is hard. Being a teenager is rough. It was as true 50 years ago as today, but we never had the choice of hiding behind a computer.

A lot of young people have had only minimal contact with other kids. There are a lot of forces at work, not only the hyper-availability of technology but also the fearfulness parents, the limited availability of free time, the overly structured lives kids have. They can’t just hang out. They aren’t encouraged to do stuff  independently.

If my generation suffered from unwillingness to discipline our kids, this generation of parents not only doesn’t discipline kids, they smother and over-protect them from life itself. They label everything as bullying. They do not encourage their offspring to face problems and assure them they can handle it, that you don’t get emotional strength by avoiding life. Instead they buy into the endless psychobabble and make their kids feel even more helpless.

I’m not surprised at the problems. Despite my son and daughter-in-law’s contention that kids are meaner than they were, I don’t agree. Kid, people, are no different than they ever were.  The difference is that parents are afraid to let their kids work out their problems. They don’t let them grow up. Sometimes, I think they don’t really want them to grow up, as if they want them to stay permanently dependent and childish. They have no idea how much they will regret it.

It’s natural to want to protect your children from hurt, but you shouldn’t protect them from life.

Life hurts. Life is also wonderful, rich, rewarding, exciting. But never pain-free.

There’s no turning back from technology. Nor would most of us want to dump our computers and cell phones. There does need to be a better balance. Technology won’t produce relationships. Exchanging words is not bonding. Sending texts and emails can’t establish closeness.

It’s a tall order convincing teenagers that emotional pain is part of growing up. Nothing but experience will help toughen them up so they can function in the world.

No one gets a pass from pain. Money won’t buy it. Private schools won’t keep life away. There’s only one way to become a survivor — experience. These kids need to get out and live. Put the cell phones away and talk to each other. Get involved. Let life happen to them, be swept away by events and emotions. Learn that feelings are manageable … with practice.

They aren’t getting the message. Maybe if they read it on Facebook?


Weekly Writing Challenge: Mind the Gap — Being a kid only looks easy …

I could wax sentimental on childhood. The innocence, the fun, the lack of responsibility. But that would be a lie. It wasn’t easy. Innocent? Not as much as pop psychology and sentiment would like it to be. Growing up is hard work. School is work, learning to be a person, to find ways to fit in with your peers without disappearing as an individual is a battle that starts young and never entirely ends.

Many kids, maybe most, don’t have idyllic childhoods. We have abusive parents, or poor parents who are just too busy trying to keep the household afloat so there’s no time to coddle the children. Schools these days load down children with so much homework they have no time to play. In large households with many children, kids have responsibilities. That’s okay, maybe good, but playtime is important too. Play is how kids learn to use their imagination, test out the social skills they’ll need to have a successful adult life. Playing house is practice for the real deal.

Childhood is a perpetual challenge. There are kids who had a charmed childhood, but I don’t know any of them personally. Most of us had problems. We had learning problems, social problems, poverty, bad parents, busy parents, no parents. No siblings, too many siblings. Not enough “stuff,” or way too much “stuff.” No discipline, too much discipline, trauma and sometimes, just somehow never fitting in.

With all the pains and agonies of growing older, I wouldn’t swap it for going through childhood again, not unless I could have someone else’s rather than mine.

From a parents’ perspective, the odds of getting the parenting thing right approaches zero on a close order. Many of us had kids when we were ourselves still kids. What did we know? By the time we learned enough to be reasonably competent, the kid had his/her own kids.

Raising my son in the early 1970s, I didn’t think much about kids in adult versus kid-oriented places. Where I went, my son went with me. I wasn’t into bars or clubs, so it pretty much meant our house, or someone else’s house. We went to museums, safari parks, other typically family oriented venues, but we did it as much for ourselves as for him. He didn’t go out with us when we would be up late unless it was a friend’s house where he could go to sleep when he was tired. Otherwise, he was as much a member of the family as his father or I. He assures me it was great. I guess I have to believe him.

When my granddaughter came along, her grandfather and I tried to introduce her to stuff that would broaden her horizons. We took her to the ballet and she adored it. We took her to concerts. She loved them, too. We took her to the museum which she loved less, but the zoo was a big hit. I tried to do for her what I would have wanted … which may or may not have been right, but in the end, what else do you have to work with but your own life experience, dreams, hopes, and passions? I tried to teach her to love books … not as successfully as I might with, but managed to give her a love of old things, antiques, old dolls, things from days long ago.

Both my son and my granddaughter understood that there was appropriate and inappropriate behavior in public. That was true whether we were in McDonald’s or Boston Symphony Hall. They might have been hellions at home, but in public, they were polite, interested, and sometimes extremely funny. My granddaughter cartwheeled through the entire Museum of Science in Boston. Japanese tourists thought she was part of the entertainment. The guards applauded. Inappropriate? Maybe. But then again, maybe adults sometimes need to loosen up.

I gave her tools — a good camera,  a computer and a sense of curiosity. Maybe it will take, maybe not. She’s a good photographer and secretly, she writes poetry, but is shy about showing it to her family. When she’s ready to share, she will. I was shy about my writing until I was well into adulthood. She’s entitled to her privacy.

If you have more than one child, each one will be different, so whatever you know, you soon discover it doesn’t apply. Most of us do our best, but somehow, our best is never good enough. We make mistakes. We make them because we don’t know better, because we believe we are doing the right thing (but it isn’t), because someone told us that’s what we should do, or that’s what our own parents did … or some other secret reason. Most of us try to be good parents, but it’s not universal. Make no mistake: there are bad parents … brutal, cruel, uncaring and neglectful parents, and far too many of them.

Kids from ugly environments can turn out good or bad according to some whatever inner compass they have. You can see plenty of examples of great people emerging from dreadful homes, and dreadful people emerging from what appear to be an ideal upbringing. It’s a crap shoot. You just don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve made your toss.

I remember the school readers we were given when I was in elementary school. They were full of happy children, happy parents, lovely homes, peaceful streets, and everyone was white. No one was anything like me and no one lived anyplace like I did. It was science fiction for the young. Television shows: “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It To Beaver” portrayed homes so completely unlike mine they might as well have been from another planet, or maybe I was. Those shows did so many of us a disservice because reality is that almost no one had a childhood like that. That was Hollywood. Life isn’t.

When I was pregnant and taking Master’s courses in psychology, I had one professor who was a mother of four young kids. She was teaching child psych and I asked her whether she applied that stuff to raising her own kids.

“Hell no,” she said. “You just love them as much as you can and muddle through. All those books? Forget them. That’s all theory. Real life is something else.”

It was the best advice I got.


Neighborhoods, Part 2

Continued from Neighborhoods

Other girls lived nearby but were not eligible to join our group. Tribal affiliation was accounted block by block. You belonged to the group of kids whose block you shared. Woe to he or she who lived on a block without other children of the same age and sex. The isolation would have been fearsome.

I did not know what went on in anyone else’s house but my own. I imagined that the lights were bright and cheerful in the other houses and there were no dark shadows, nor was there any sadness or pain anywhere but in my scary world.

In my world, the scream of a child in pain was an everyday background noise. It was the sound of life going on as usual. Behind it, you could hear my mother pleading: “Alf, please, the neighbors will hear!” as if the issue was really whether or not people knew what was going on. Did my mother believe if the neighbors didn’t hear the pandemonium, it didn’t count? Or if other people didn’t hear it, nothing had happened? Perhaps it was that she knew nothing else to say that might quiet my father, stop his rampage.

Meanwhile, across the street, Karen’s mother was drinking herself into a coma every night and the only thing that kept Karen from a nightly beating was her father. He was a kindly older man who seemed to be from another world. As it turned out, he would soon go to another world. Before summer was ended, Karen’s father died of a heart attack and after that, she fought her battles alone.

Down the street, in the old clapboard house where I thought Liz led a perfect life, an endless battle raged. Liz’s father never earned enough money and their house was slowly but surely crumbling around them. The house belonged to Liz’s grandmother who lived with them. Nana was senile, incontinent and mean, but she owned the place. No Nana, no house. In her lucid moments, she never failed to remind Liz’s dad that the entire family lived there on sufferance. Her sufferance. Where I imagined a life full of peace and good will, there was neither.

What a lovely neighborhood I grew up in. There we were, living in our fine old homes shaded by the giant white oaks, our green lawns rolling down to quiet streets where it was safe to play stick ball or tag any time of day or night. Few cars came through our little enclave, so far off the beaten track were we. I’m sure that the very few travelers that happened through, probably lost and looking for some other neighborhood much better traveled, envied us.

“How lucky these folks are,” they must have thought, seeing our grand old houses and huge properties. “These people must be so happy.”

I have a picture in my album. It’s in black and white and a bit faded now. It shows the three of us … Karen, Liz, and me … sitting in Liz’s back yard. Liz looks very pretty and somehow very grown-up. Karen looks like the kid from the Campbell’s soup commercial, all dimples and freckles, carefree and happy. There I am. I’m the tiny one. I was always the smallest, a pipsqueak, looking just a little sad, not quite smiling. My mother had wrangled my hair into two pony tails that day to keep it out of my eyes and tied a ribbon on each clump of hair.

We envied one another and thought the other much better off. It would be many years before we discovered one another’s secrets and by then, we would be adults and it would be too late to give each other the comfort we had all needed as we grew up, sad and alone in our houses, so many years ago.

From The 12-Foot Teepee, by Marilyn Armstrong

Copyright 2007

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