welcome mat. even when it’s borrowed…

welcome mat

dispatch from 02139 (in which dear old friend rolls beneath the transom, but before she does we whistle while we work, loving the art of red-carpeting for a friend…)

the coq au vin bubbled away. the flannel sheets, unfurled and tucked tightly onto bottom bunk (with nursing-school-acquired hospital corners as far as i could reach). even the bathroom mirror got spritzed with shiny polish.

i hummed the whole day long, from the moment i awoke (at 4 when the cat let out a yowl). till the last stalk of hyacinth was plucked into a vase, an olfactory and faux springtime attempt at masking the inconvenient truth that the kitty-litter bin has nowhere else to hide but alongside the claw-foot tub in the already itty-bitty bathroom, the one just inches away from the living-dining-conviving rooms.

a dear friend was flying into beantown, a friend from long ago and far away (we’ve been close as close since the day she wandered into the tribune newsroom back in 1985, and through the years we’ve weathered many of the bumps that life can bring).

all day long i savored the pure oxygen that is the art of putting out the welcome mat. even when it’s borrowed.

puttering for this particular friend is all the more delicious because a.) i ADORE her, but b.) she too loves the art of red-carpeting for a friend, or making like the keeper of a dreamy b & b, one who wholly grasps the concept that it’s the little details — a fresh pitcher of water by the bed, complete with lemony life rafts floating in the drink; a paperwhite bulb bundled in see-through wrap tied up with string and plunked atop a stack of fluffy towels, a token to take home; the red-wine clouds wafting from the oven — that whisper, “i love you, my friend, and i’ve taken every care to wrap you in the luxuries of deep, long friendship.”

if you’ve ever been taken care of in this particular way — and i hope and pray you have — you know the magic powers of this potion.

perhaps you too have been lulled into dreamy state as someone paved your way with the beautiful. as someone thought two steps ahead, and laid out a fluffy robe, filled a canister with bath salts and rubs. stocked the fridge with icy drinks, or left out a tub of cocoa, fat marshmallows and king leo peppermint sticks.

all in all, made you feel like the cherished guest they’d waited a lifetime to behold.

i’d long been an under-the-radar admirer of these domestic arts. didn’t want to let on (not too loudly, anyway) that i might secretly pine for martha stewart — her actual self, not merely her glossy pages — to be stationed at the back of my pantry. nor that i spent time dilly-dallying over fresh-picked bouquets or tucking lavender sachets between my linens.

but then, some years back, it was this particular friend — one of my most brilliant, certainly among the most widely and deeply read, harvard-educated and bayou-steeped, a newspaper scribe-turned-public radio news hound — who once confided that she was hankering to write a book on, not the influence of castro on miami’s cuban ex-pats and not the cajun roots of zydeco (which i might have guessed), but rather on hospitality, pure and, yes, holy.

it is, of the many nesty arts, one of the most exuberantly selfless.

it is about wrapping the ones you love in the comforts you might only dream about. maybe some of us tend to overthink it because we so deeply wish we were so wrapped. or, to be even more honest, because we wish we had the knack for being kinder and gentler to our very own selves. and so in doing for others we inhale, absorb, deep-breathe whatever afterglow seeps out.

i’ll not ever forget the long-ago weekend i spent tucked inside my radio friend’s coconut grove, florida, tile-roofed house. i can still hear the tumble of the tomato chunks as she poured that evening’s gazpacho from a chilled pitcher into wide-waisted goblets. can still feel the egyptian-thread pillowcases against my cheeks. still hear the jazzy soundtrack that played softly as we curled on the couch, catching up on whatever stories hadn’t fit in all the long-distance phone calls.

and so, two whole decades later, i still indulge in returning the indulgence whenever she comes to visit. and, even after all these years spent on far ends of the continent, she makes a point of doing so at least once every year, even re-routing her itinerary this week from LA (where she lives now) to DC’s inauguration with a stop in cambridge, so we could — together, on a chilly misty day — walk her old stomping ground.

and this time round, with my college-girl budget (meaning the few dollar bills that happened to be in my wallet), i got a bonus round of seeing what i could do without grabbing for the credit card. which somehow made it all the more delightful. the nice man at the flower stall in harvard square let me buy a single hyacinth stem, then threw in — for good measure — a clutch of laurel branches. i scrounged in the stairwell for the leftover bottle of bordeaux someone gave me for my birthday, and that — with a plop of chicken, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms — became my bubbling brew of coq au vin. clean sheets don’t cost a dime, nor do fluffy towels. nor bowls of oatmeal stirred and studded with cranberries and raisins. the fresh snow falling out the window came free too. and the long long hours of unbroken conversation. even the sumptuous global gala at the ambassador’s house, one filled with women peacebuilders from the world’s most war-torn countries (all in town for a one-week women’s peacekeeping colloquium, and with which a few scribes — including me — helped out), it all made for 36 hours of sacred time.

and 36 hours that will forever be tucked in our shared treasury of time magnificently spent.

although i’ll add to those heavenly hours the 12 that came in pre-amble, as i whistled while i worked. and, at every turn, thanked the angels for the gift of this most delicious company, a once-in-a-lifetime friend you forever love through and through and through….

what are some of the welcome tricks you tuck up your sleeve, for i happen to know there are a few masters at the art of hospitality who so benevolently pull up chairs? do tell. a girl can never ever have too many tricks in this divine department….