Today is my friend Anne’s birthday. She would be 69 today if she still graced the planet with her presence. I should be going to her birthday party tonight, lugging my carved Jack-O-Lanterns over to her house on Sweeney Road to place them on the front porch, candles relit. It always felt appropriate to relight the Halloween remnants of demon-scaring gourds on Dia de los Muertos, the day of the dead, as November 1 is also known in some countries. Anne threw herself a birthday party every year – on November 1 – regardless of what day of the week that happened to be. Only the truest friends made it out to weeknight birthday parties. I always enjoyed the intimacy of those smaller gatherings. Anne seemed to enjoy the excess of leftover birthday cake (always from Our Daily Bread Bakery in Blacksburg, Virginia, usually carrot cake, and only deemed acceptable if decorated with witches and black cats).
Friday birthdays generally made for the liveliest birthday parties. Tonight’s would have been memorable. We could have made lewd jokes about her age – 69 is a fun number for that sort of thing. For all her southern primness and propriety, Anne had a wicked sense of humor as well as a healthy appreciation of all things carnal. She routinely insisted, “I don’t want presents,” but the potential for gag gifts would have been too much for Michael and me to resist. (Because I believe...I do believe that Michael would still be alive if Anne was still alive...I’ll save his story for another day.)
Anne had a great house for parties. Her architect (who was also her ex-husband) designed the “library” off of the living room with a removable wall – actually a large set of double French doors at the top of a couple of shallow steps. The doors could be folded out of the way, allowing the “library” to become a stage that opened out not only onto the living room but the glass wall and wrap around deck beyond. Some years she hired her musician friends to play her birthday parties; the “library” had a sliding glass door that opened out to the side yard, perfect for loading in (and out) drum kits, keyboards, microphone stands, and amplifiers. As the band played, guests would knock back bottles of beer, glasses of wine, bourbons with coke (a staple in Hokie Nation) and nibble on the spread, usually a full dinner buffet.
If Anne felt like cooking that year, I would join her a few days before her birthday to help prepare the food. If she planned to serve roast turkey, I helped with the green bean casserole. (Sliced water chestnuts, Anne’s grandmother’s secret, are an amazing addition to the classic Campbell’s Soup recipe.) When bourbon soaked roast beef was on the menu, I still helped with the green bean casserole. My favorite dish was Anne’s shrimp and rice. We would put it together the night before so the flavors could marry. We’d boil five pounds of shrimp (in Anne's Alabama drawl, 'srimp') in the shell with Sauer's Crawfish Shrimp and Crab Boil in a Bag then sit together at her kitchen table to peel them. This routinely involved fighting off the cats, especially Lillian, a gray tabby with white socks who was quite skilled at snatching shrimp out of one’s hands with a quick, deft paw. (The cat stole cheeseburgers from Wendy’s Restaurant too. It got so bad Anne would actually buy two and let Lillian eat one while she ate the other.)
As we peeled shrimp, two boxes of Uncle Ben’s Original Recipe Wild Rice simmered on the stove. Anne would stir occasionally while instructing me on how much extra sharp cheddar cheese to shred. When all the components were ready, we’d assemble the oversized casserole dish: boiled shrimp, cooked rice, shredded cheese, canned button mushrooms layered in that order. Then add a cup of milk, salt, pepper, paprika and dried chopped chives. Stir the lot. Cover and chill overnight. The next day, I would arrive early to help set up the buffet as Anne slid the casserole in a 350-degree oven. Bubbly, gooey, shrimpy perfection emerged eventually. With a chunk of crusty French bread and glass of white wine, it made for a magical feast.
Some years, Anne held her birthday party at her favorite eatery, Maxwell’s Restaurant, now defunct, but once a nice, upscale place to dine – the type of place one took prom dates and Valentines – complete with a jazz lounge at the north end of the building. (I had my wedding rehearsal dinner at Maxwell’s Restaurant in 2001. The owner, Lindsay Coleman, prepared the Bananas Foster personally.) One year in particular, it was either 1996 or 1997, Anne decided to combine her birthday party with her Will Signing Party. The idea of throwing a party to sign a will seemed crass to me at the time, but I have since learned (having thrown one of my own) that “will signing party” is the technical term for the process of sitting down with your last will and testament, two witnesses, a notary public, and a handful of blue pens to sign the document. Anne insisted though, “It’ll be fun!”
Anne arranged for Maxwell’s to put out a spread of heavy hors d’oeuvres: bacon-wrapped chicken livers, hot spinach and artichoke dip with assorted fancy crackers, piles of cheeses, grapes, strawberries and pineapple chunks, meatballs in sauce, mini croissants with chicken salad, shrimp cocktail, smoked salmon or caviar on cucumber slices, and of course, a birthday cake decorated with witches and black cats. The party would take place in the side dining room as well as the jazz lounge area, and Lindsay promised to hire an acoustic guitar player to play while we partied. Anne loaded the guest list with the usual suspects plus whomever she thought might be useful to schmooze from Virginia Tech’s faculty. (Anne taught English there as a tenured associate professor, but she aspired to a promotion to full professor.) I helped her select the style of invitations, which she always had printed at Partyrama at ridiculous expense (another defunct Blacksburg business...they were THE place to go for Madame Alexander dolls, greeting cards and party balloons).
Parties at Maxwell’s tended to bring out more formal attire. The university faculty guests (some were friends, but most fell into the schmooze category) arrived in suits and ties, cocktail dresses and too much perfume. The musicians (Anne’s passion was music, and she was extremely fond of musicians, especially younger ones), friends and students wore blue jeans and tee shirts; I found it secretly useful for telling who was who. Perhaps it was the engraved invitations, but the Will Signing Party turned out to be one of Anne’s most formal birthday parties, which annoyed me almost immediately and caused me to begin drinking too much shortly after the majority of guests had arrived. Because her lawyers would be in attendance, and Anne was as fond of lawyers as she was of musicians (for reasons I never fully fathomed), Anne had invited more than the usual number of snobby faculty types. I’m not sure who she hoped to impress with this mix, but most of the faculty had been flat out mean to her at some point or another that year, and it galled me to see her air-kissing the cheeks of people she had been calling flaming assholes only weeks before.
The highlight of the evening, in Anne’s mind, was to be the actual signing of the will. Why she thought we would all want to watch it still mystifies me. She had a special table set up in front of the small stage occupied by the acoustic guitarist in the jazz lounge. At the appointed hour, Anne announced that the will signing was about to commence. (I think the “appointed hour” was simply after Anne and the faculty guests had polished off the bacon-wrapped chicken livers…they were her favorite, and apparently most of her colleagues felt the same.) She motioned for the guitar player to quit playing. Anne, the lawyer, a second witness (I think Michael) and the notary public took their seats at the table, blue pens were passed around, and the signing commenced.
In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the last will and testament must be initialed by the testator on every single page and signed by the testator, two witnesses, and a notary public in order to be considered a legal and binding document. The witnesses must not only sign, but print their full legal names as well as their address. The notary public has an entirely separate form that she or he must complete, sign, and stamp, which must also be signed by all parties. My husband and I held a will signing party at our local bank branch. Each of our wills is seven pages long,but it still took an hour to complete the entire process. Not a big deal when it’s just you and the parties needed to get the job done.
Anne’s will was every bit of 30 pages long.
As the signing began, I took a seat at Anne's "usual" table, a round eight-top near the entrance, next to the window that looked out on Main Street. (Weekly Maxwell's “tea parties” at this table with Anne routinely involved beer and dinner…and cigarettes…lots of cigarettes.) Thirty minutes into the signing, I, now thoroughly drunk on free beer, surveyed the crowd, which was growing restless. At the very least, the silly bitch could have let us listen to music, I fumed to myself. As Anne continued to scribble AC, AC, AC on page after page, I stood and made my way toward the will signing party and the guitarist. I grinned at Anne, who had looked at me with annoyance – I was clearly upstaging her – and slipped the guitar player a twenty-dollar bill.
“She told me not to play,” he muttered.
“Screw her,” I muttered back. “Do you know Friend of the Devil by the Grateful Dead?”
He nodded and grinned. I smiled as he began to sing while strumming the familiar chords.
“Set out runnin’ but I take my time.
A friend of the devil is a friend of mine.
If I get home before daylight, I just might get some sleep tonight.”
"Very funny," Anne hissed at me as I turned back to her.
"We needed music," I said simply, and I went back to my seat.
I think if I had chosen anything other than a Grateful Dead song, she probably would have put a stop to the music just to get her way. Or maybe she could tell I was tanked enough to argue with her. She acquiesced; the crowd settled down as the music filled the room. The will signing party ended with the song, and tuxedo-shirt-and-bow tie-clad servers wheeled out the birthday cake festooned with witches and black cats. Soon after, the clock clicked past midnight. Dia de los Muertos crossed into just another Saturday morning, up too late. But the music was good, and for Anne, the night was young…