In the summer of 1965, our house in Nassau Bay was finished and we prepared to leave 7307 Carew in Sharpstown and neighbors that had become family. Ken was working at the Manned Spacecraft Center and finishing up his doctorate at Rice University so I had been in charge of supervising the construction. This involved months of loading our toddler son into the car and winding our way across town. At that time Loop 610 was only in the planning. All of this meant we had little time to socialize with the community around NASA. Fortunately our small Sharpstown house sold quickly and we were at last residing across the street from the MSC. I, at age 25, was figuring out window curtains and my role in the new community.
It would be generous to say I was reluctant to fill the role of a rising executive’s wife. Maybe reluctant isn’t’ the right word…clueless is more like it. My mother knew more about this than I did and I just really wasn’t interested enough to pay attention growing up. I was several years younger than most of the wives of Ken’s employees but tried to keep up. I hated the “division wives luncheons” but felt I should go as Ken was in management. I hired a sitter, donned the panty hose, hat and gloves, gritted my teeth and showed up smiling. I was trying.
The week after we moved in Ken’s office group of employees got together to give us a housewarming on short notice. I panicked and knocked myself out ironing curtains and unpacking between washing diapers and scraping mac and cheese off the floor. I was just relieved I didn’t have to cook. My idea of getting ready for a party at the time was to make sure the bathroom was clean with plenty of toilet paper and somewhere there was ice for sodas and beer.
Fortunately the group was prepared and brought food, drinks, ice and paper plates and napkins. Our breakfast table was covered with newspaper and a huge tray of unpeeled boiled shrimp was laid in the middle. I was dismayed; I had never seen shrimp served with the heads and shells on. I had no idea what to do with them. After a demonstration, I squeamishly pulled the head off a shrimp and then the shell. I thought the whole thing disgusting but didn’t want to appear ungrateful so I just removed myself and became very busy looking after our 20 month old. The beer flowed, the shrimp disappeared. Everyone had a great time and all pitched in with the clean-up. Eventually I got over my shrimp phobia (living on the Bay did I have a choice?) and can now clean and cook them with finesse.
A couple of years and two kids in diapers later, I agreed to Ken’s wish to host the office Christmas party at our house and waded in with both feet. I loved decorating the house for Christmas and spent hours after the kids were asleep creating ornaments and decorations and looked forward to sharing all of it. But the menu was pure agony. Food prep was not and never has been my thing. Like my mom, I can do it but am just not that into it. I finally settled on some kind of Mexican food. The appetizer was the forever Lipton onion soup dip and chips, the only one I knew how to make. I left Ken to get the drinks iced down and prepared chicken enchiladas in baking dishes and a great big salad with pralines for dessert. I so wanted things to look like I knew what I was doing among these more experienced guests.
Guests arrived, drinks served and I popped the enchiladas in the oven while tossing the salad. All was going pretty well until about twenty minutes into the 30 minute baking time when smoke started rising from the oven activating the smoke alarm. I opened the oven door and flames were rising from the floor of the oven where the enchiladas had spilled over. I grabbed the dishes and ran for the baking soda to douse the flames. Ken opened the windows and turned on the exhaust. On checking the enchiladas, they seemed done enough and I announced dinner was ready. All was well and the party went on without another glitch and the kids stayed asleep.
The next year once again I bravely invited the office back for Christmas. We finally had a table in the dining room, my grandmother’s, a buffet (my aunt) and a sofa from my aunt and uncle in the living room so I decided to use real china and go a little more formal with a simpler menu that could be prepared in advance. I borrowed my mother’s silver chafing dish and polished silver trays for small sandwiches. The silver chafing dish sat on a silver tray on the breakfast table with a hot dip and chips underneath. As the doorbell rang with the arrival of the first guests, I lit the sterno under the chafing dish and removed the lid. Soon people went about helping themselves to dip and chips. I went on to talk with guests when I heard a shout from the breakfast room. Shit! There was a fire under the chafing dish. Chips were in flames and before I could get the fire out with a wet dish towel, a leg of the chafing dish melted, the bowl tilted and out went the dip. Good grief! Another fire! What were these people going to think and what was I going to tell my mother? Everyone seemed to still have a great time and made jokes about the dip and fire but I was rather traumitized.
By the time the next Christmas rolled around needless to say I was less than enthusiastic about entertaining Ken’s office. However after a year I figured most had forgiven or forgotten and out of guilt and my need to try again to be the “supportive good wife”, invitations went out to his office for a Christmas gathering. The children were older and I was able to really get going on decorating without the fear they were going to eat them or tear the decorations apart. We put a tree up in the den, another in the living room and even a little one in the guest bathroom downstairs. It was Christmas everywhere.
I had been gifted with a punch bowl and cups (by my mother, of course) which I placed on the new Christmas table cloth in the dining room. The platters of food were going there as well so I prepared a pretty centerpiece down the center of the table of greenery, pine cones and candles on a piece of aluminum foil to protect the new table cloth. The table looked lovely. The buffet held plates, napkins and silver ware.
Guests helped themselves, ate well and were relaxing after dinner with coffee and sweets. The kids were in bed and I was relaxing at last on the floor in the den talking with friends. Others were milling around, talking and drinking. Whew! Life was good, coffee hot and good conversations with real adults. But then Ken came rushing in from the kitchen saying “We just had a big problem but it is over. I took care of it and all is fine now.”
He had been standing in the kitchen next to the refrigerator with his back to the open door into the dining room when the friend facing him and the dining room said, “Is the table supposed to be doing that?” Ken turned and saw flames rising from the centerpiece on the table and it wasn’t the candles. He quickly grabbed the fire extinguisher from the utility room and doused the flaming pine cones and greenery.
Amazingly the remaining punch and food survived untouched. The foil under the centerpiece saved the table cloth; the extinguishing foam was easily brushed off later. It was all over before I even knew anything was happening. But right then and there I decided there was a message in all this. Three fires and that was it. The universe was telling me something. I was done hosting big office parties. No more—to hell with being super wife. If Ken’s rise to fame and glory depended on a classy wife entertaining flawlessly with great success, he was doomed.
I would later hostess many parties for friends and family whom I love and cherish but only taking heed that simpler is better and always have a plan B.