- My pal Mike doesn’t have children (just a pug, cats need not apply) nor does he want them. He doesn’t hate them, he’s just not interested. So it goes that a lot of kid-affiliated subject matter is foreign to him. Like the time he was trying to describe an infant in a playpen and said, “You know, it was in one of those things …..one of those baby cages.”
He’s yet to live that one down.
- I’ve never been Johnny-on-the-spot with my cell phone, and at this late date I doubt I ever will be. Most of the time I misplace it, and don’t care – and then I can’t find it because, due to neglect, the battery died. I don’t realize this until I need it, of course. But whenever it is on my person and fully charged, I DON’T need it, and no one else seems to need me to have it. It’s not until the damn thing is lying lifeless at the bottom of the laundry hamper, or under the passenger seat of my car, that there’s some emergent situation where someone needs to get ahold of me RIGHT NOW, or vise versa.
Point is, it means I’m not a prompt texter-backer person. But my friends text me anyway, and thank the heavens for it! Because later, whenever I eventually re-tether my electronic leash, hilarity awaits me. And that’s a very wonderful thing!
When planning to celebrate the end of my husband’s 24 year career in the United States Army I had a tough time figuring out just how the hell to do that. Please understand, I was a terrible Army wife. It’s the first thing I tell anyone when they ask me about Scott’s former career. I never learned the acronyms, the protocols, the politics or the hierarchy. I didn’t go to church, vote Republican, or carry a Coach purse. I avoided Pampered Chef parties, mommy & me play groups, and failed to roll deep with the MWR crowd. And, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing any of those things, I’m just a weirdo. A misfit. And a terrible Army wife. Yet, I love my sweetheart (and my country, I swear) and, by God, I was going to throw him an awesome Army-ish party….somehow.
I didn’t extensively scour the internet looking for military retirement party ideas, but what little Google and Pinterest searches I performed didn’t turn up much in the way of inspiration. Lots of red, white and blue decor, several patriotic appetizers that would also do nicely at a 4th of July bash, and a few clever cakes, but nothing that showcased what the norm might be for “So Long, Army” festivities. Fortunately, with the help of my creative mother, we winged it.
Concepts/highlights below: may they prove helpful to some other terrible military spouse out there.
MENU: Chow Hall Reminiscence
We rented a local hall that provided a chef, servers and bar on site – the one-stop-shop convenience of that was, I felt, well worth the added expense! When planning the menu my husband decided to forgo delicatessens and asked if the chef could whip up a dish he remembered fondly from his basic training days: Yakisoba. The chef obliged and it was…..Americana grub, for certain; meaty, salty, carby, tough guy chow.
There were lots of leftovers.
DÉCOR: Red, White & Cheap
Directing the majority of our budget toward venue, food, servers and booze, I allotted only a comparative fraction for decor. The party was in April but, by a stroke of luck, a local dollar store had set out all their Independence Day merchandise early – and I bought it all! The venue manager had told us we could decorate as we pleased, “We had a wedding down here once and the couple hired some gay guy….made this place look like Narnia!”
We didn’t achieve Narnia status, but I tacked up red, white and blue plastic table cloths as wall panels and bedazzled enough items to be as patriotic as all get out. Borrowing from my mister’s skull collection (not real, and not weird…well, maybe a little weird…but purely in the fun, still creepy, but mostly harmless way) and topped them with various military hats. Center piece, meet conversation piece!
My mother built cupcake trees out of Styrofoam discs and wooden candle holders (another Pinterest grab) and our daughters painted them. Pretty cute and blessedly cheap!
PHOTO BOOTH: Because Everybody’s Doing It
Using cardstock to print mustaches, mouths, masks, etc, we hot glued these to dowels as photo booth props. We added military hats of all sorts and, as backdrop, hung an American flag that a family member had flown for Scott while he’d served in Iraq.
And photo fun was had by all (the non-stick-in-the-muds).
SLIDE SHOW: Blasts from a Plentiful Past
The only retirement party staple I was familiar with was that of the projector, the screen, and the photo slideshow down memory lane. But what content to display, and how much, was another expedition into uncharted affairs. Eventually I chose to keep the majority of images related to his career, but I wanted to present an overall snapshot of his life as well. A few adorable shots of his boyhood here, a couple awkward teenager candids there, and I tried to add pictures of him posed alongside the many faces that were a part of his journey; to include ex-girlfriends and ex-wives. That last bit can be a touchy subject for some, but I felt those women were relevant chapters of Scott’s story. Besides, my husband has so many female friends, no one knew which girl photographed was just a pal and which one had seen him naked.
And, thankfully, no one asked.
Non-Pro Tip: I recommend a ten second delay, or more, between slides. We went with five and it proved a touch too zippy.
VIDEO GREETINGS: Be There, in More than Just Spirit
When your job requires you to travel all over the world you tend to end up with friends in nearly every corner of it, and those friends often live so far off they can’t always readily attend your retirement party. Except that they CAN! Sort of.
The ultimate triumph of that congratulatory night was surprising my dearest darling with a video of his most beloved peeps wishing him well.
The idea didn’t come to me until the party was less than two weeks out, so I scrambled like mad to gather 15-30 second videos from friends, family and colleagues all across the globe. The morning of the event I was still receiving, and frantically splicing together, last-minute video clips, but Microsoft Movie Maker made quick-editing a breeze and, after dinner, film rolled flawlessly for husband and guests. Husband was awed, guests were entertained.
-Terrible Former Army Wife, Signing Off.
Throwing the first of what will likely become an annual holiday party in our home, we invited our guests to bring wrapped, inexpensive mystery presents to be won in a dice game. A “Dirty Dice” holiday game (not that kind of dirty) that my family has played every Christmas for the last twenty years. We just call it “The Dice Game” but when I searched it for its official rules, “Dirty Dice” it was. So named for the last, frantic fifteen minutes of cut-throat present stealing. It really helps draw out the inner greedy, materialistic bastard in us all – otherwise known as “The Christmas Spirit.”
The game was a smash, hence plans for future events, but a couple of unexpectedly cool things happened besides good times, gift hoarding, and my husband dressing as Santa, passing out presents to the little ones. See, some of our friends identify themselves as introverts. And I can relate to the socially awkward. I grew up in a tree talking to a cat. I believe the movie “Nell” was loosely based on my childhood. But I watched the socially uncozy unite during our gathering. There was a fellow, a new friend’s husband, who was, to the watchful eye, clearly uncomfortable in the crowd of strangers. Another of our self-proclaimed wallflower friends took the goodwill initiative and led the newcomer on a tour of my husband’s action figure packed man cave; more commonly referred to as the “Joe Room”, but also known in some circles as “Geek Mecca.” When the newcomer and his wife bid us goodnight he said, “I just want to tell you, I normally hate parties. My wife had to drag me here. But I had such a good time! You guys are awesome!”
Best compliment of 2013. God it feels good making others feel good.
Highlight dos arrived when a few friends recognized some of my holiday décor for the vintage childhood memorabilia it really is. I had no idea the Christmas Countdown Mouse Calendar had once been so popular. And I don’t know how it went down in other 80s and 90s homes, but in mine, my mother told me the elves came each night to leave candy in the pocket of the newest December day. My most vivid memory of this calendar was the year she underwent back surgery. Being that I was 10 years old, and no longer bought the elf story…but still liked candy very much, my mom pre-packed all days she’d be away in the hospital – a little over a week. I remember looking at that calendar, and the numbered pockets full of chocolates, feeling sad that she would be gone so long, feeling worried and scared for her health, and feeling loved because she’d taken the time to fill my calendar. I felt a mixture of trepidation and reverence. And then I ate ALL the candy at once.
I may have left a few days worth, for sentimentality’s sake. I can’t recall. That was so last century.
But the conversation of youthful yuletide totems led to the pieces of personal history that hung from my tree. Moreover, the ingenious tradition my mother began in 1979, when she bought me my first ornament featuring Pooh Bear and Piglet. Every year afterward she took me to the Hallmark store and had me choose a keepsake. She told me they’d be the ornaments I moved away from home with, someday, and the very first tree of my own would sparkle with the memories my childhood. And that’s exactly what happened.
Every year, when I unbox the squirrels on the telephone, I’m reminded that when I was 13 years old I could not be pried from the phone. And when I hang the Heathcliff ornament on my tree, the one I picked out when I was 7 (my mom labeled all the boxes with the year I chose them, because she’s awesome like that), I wonder if anyone even remembers who Heathcliff was. There are adorable years, like racoon-riding-a-skateboard year, because I was into raccoons and cute skateboarders. And there are solemn years, like the year my mentor lost her young life in a head-on collision with a semi-trailer, and I chose an angel to represent her.
As I pointed out these artifacts, sharing their stories, a few people said, “Wow. I’m stealing your mom’s idea.” And they should. And you should, too. It’s a beautiful thing to give your children; little memories of long ago Christmases to adorn their someday trees, all their later on lives.
Naturally, I carry on this tradition with my own daughters. Though we’re not bound to the sacredness of the Hallmark Keepsake Ornament. In fact, this year’s additions were hand painted and shipped to us by my talented auntie Holly (I share the link to her Etsy shop and Facebook page every chance I get, she’s amazing). My eldest received a Hunger Games inspired ornament, a Sally one was made for my “Nightmare Before Christmas” obsessed youngest, and a surprise “Breaking Bad” piece came for me. Yay! Because what says “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” better than a little Heisenberg?
Now, I’m not sure my girls appreciate the ornament ritual just yet. I mean, they love choosing their annual baubles, but they’re already critical of choices they made just a year or two previous. My eldest rolls her eyes at her 4 year old “Barbie Princess” pick, while my youngest is so over her 2 year old “Go, Diego, Go!” selection. And that’s fine. It still goes up on our tree, just as I hope they will one day be displayed as lovingly upon the girls “someday” ones.
Niki’s Not-So-Secret Sangria Recipe
A.K.A. Pictionary Juice
(2 quart recipe)
1 bottle of Merlot or a table red
2 cups ginger ale
2 oz. brandy
1 tbsp. sugar
1/2 lemon sliced
1/2 orange sliced
1/2 sliced Gala or Fuji apple
1 cup sliced strawberries
While you don’t have to break the bank on your choice of wine (especially if you plan to double or triple the recipe for entertaining – because running out of sangria is just about the saddest thing to happen to a party), I do suggest staying in the “it was originally 12.99 but is on sale for 7.99” region of wine. But even a six dollar bottle of Yellow Tale Merlot will work out okay. Just don’t try a Cabernet. Cabernet laughs at your sugar and your very silly sweetness.
Speaking of sugar, that table spoon of the stuff is wholly optional. It’s the last ingredient I add, and only after having tasted my concoction. Whether it’s needed or not is usually reliant upon the choice of wine.
Leaving the rinds on the citrus, which is standard of sangria recipes, I cut mine into half circles (apples as well) to more easily serve the fruit in glasses. I have it on good authority that fishing out yummy booze fruit is half the fun of my sangria.
And then you’re supposed to chill it overnight. Mine has never known a life so lengthy. It chills for approximately five hours (if that) and is but a savory memory within ten. Such a simple, almost effortless recipe for such rave reviews.
Lastly, special thanks to my dear friend Justin who deemed this recipe “Pictionary Juice.” We semi-regularly get a group of friends together, bust out the Pictionary, partner up, drink more sangria than anyone else in the room, until we’re no longer Johnny-on-the-cognitive-spot, until every drawing is “Clearly Forrest Gump eating a box of chocolates! Clearly!” (shout out to Brenda), and when we stop laughing long enough notice we’re losing, he yells, “We need more Pictionary Juice! Drink up, bitch!” – and we win.
Sangria: The Pictionary Juice of Champions.