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Small Talk: Tea’s on, pinkies out

My mother announced some time ago she intended to celebrate my daughter’s ninth birthday with a “real” tea party. I grinned on the outside and cringed on the inside. I feared it ranked right up there with sewing a fine seam for most of today’s pre-teens.

A fancy tea party was not something even my daughter, the unofficial party maven of the third grade, would have thought to request. It would require some serious social skills that my often-shy child might have trouble drumming up on cue. I decided to just stand back and let the petit fours fall where they may.

Grandma invited a handful of her closest friends and their granddaughters. The invitations went out, in an elegant script, with two important yet rarely used phrases at the bottom. One was “respondez s’il vous plait,” and the other read “party dress.”

Now even my mom knows that in Southern California both of those suggestions are generally considered stuffy and irrelevant. No problem. My mother knew her audience. She knew these invitations were going to women who grew up in a time when formal dances were held several times a year and people “dressed for the occasion.” They were delighted to have an opportunity to put their granddaughters into something other than blue jeans. Ranging in age from 2 to 11, every child arrived happily bedecked in lace and chiffon, bows and party shoes.

My amazement grew during the next two hours, as each child daintily behaved like a chapter from a Victorian novel. Each filled her plate with finger sandwiches, scones and miniature sweets. No one pushed, shoved, grabbed all the doughnut holes, shouted “yuck” or got upset because she wasn’t the first in line. Punch was poured from a breakable miniature teapot into breakable miniature tea cups. I waited, with dish towels cleverly hidden behind me, for the first major spill or breakage. It never came.

The whole event began to seem slightly surreal as these young ladies, all strangers until that day, sat calmly around a table and chatted without self-consciousness. Then just when I truly began to suspect that all the grandmothers had slipped these children some “Stepford Wives” drug, it happened. They tore pages right out of “Cinderella” and “Little Women.”

It took one small, almost inaudible signal from my daughter to make that clock strike midnight. The girls sidled swiftly to the door and burst outside in a flurry of noise and activity, party dresses be darned. If a fairy godmother could have been summoned, every fancy frock would have been happily traded for some comfy rags. Shiny shoes would have been left behind for some foolish prince to pick up, and scuffed tennies would have popped up in their place.

They went shrieking around the house several times, bows unraveling and socks drooping. An impromptu race down the driveway threatened permanent damage to lace hems and patent leather, but it was tough to be disapproving, even for the grandmas. These girls had done their job. They had shown us all that they could handle those timeless social graces, so dear to their grandmas’ hearts.

As the grandmothers whisked them away in their modern-day pumpkins, I had to give my mom and daughter their due. The day was a wonderful tribute to both generations — a perfect blend of lovely times gone by and liberated times today. May the twain regularly meet.

Jean Gillette is a freelance writer fondly remembering the last time her daughter wore a dress. Contact her at [email protected]