Sunday marks the “Girls’ Afternoon Off” party, hosted by Ellen Slingerland and a merry band of neighborhood women in State College. This year’s theme is “Gold Diggers,” and guests are encouraged to wear gold lame or anything “flapperific.” Now held biennially, the event is eagerly anticipated by all participants. The following column ran in 2002 when the theme was “Witchy Women.” Some of the other themes have been Scarlet Women, Pirates and Vestal Virgins.
Our seasonal rhythms run the gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime and some straddle both extremes. Last Sunday, Ellen Slingerland’s annual “Girls’ Afternoon Off” party celebrated 10 years of leaving the rest of the family to fend for themselves while Mom goes out and lets her hair down. For one, that hair was long and green; for another, long and pink; and in a third wigged-out instance, curly, red and threaded with rubber snakes, for costumes are de rigueur at this event and the theme for the year was “Witchy Women.”
In a town generally accustomed to shenanigans, this soiree sets a standard. The staid houses of the Highlands neighborhood harbor women with incendiary hearts that erupt each spring in a conflagration. It is Slingerland though, who sets the stage and gently blows on the kindling.
“I actually tried to take a year off from having the party,” said Slingerland, brushing a long strand of day-glo green hair off her sparkling cheek, “but my neighbors wouldn’t hear of it. They all helped me so that it wouldn’t be so much work for me this time. They helped fill the party bags and Doyle (Wilkerson) made the punch — a blend of yogurt, crème de menthe, brandy and food color to make it purple — and they helped decorate the house with the streamers and dangling rubber insects. They helped with draping the yards of black gauze and customizing the portraits in the living room so they fit the theme. They are a very crafty bunch.”
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One of the heads of the seven or so neighbors who refused to take “no party” for an answer is Doyle Wilkerson, retired kindergarten teacher and 30-year resident of the neighborhood. It was Wilkerson who led the parade of long-skirted, wool-blazered women down the street with their placard, Highland Women’s Temperance League, and led them in singing a hymn to try to persuade Slingerland to abandon her wanton ways. Their heavy clothes soon peeled off to reveal the “witch within” as they joined the party.
“They always make a big entrance and surprise me,” laughed the hostess as she guided new arrivals to the table that displayed a stack of pointy black hats.
Helen Dempsey, neighbor and longtime party attendee, revealed the mission of the group.
“The real party is the one that we have before Ellen’s party when we decide what we are going to do. One year the theme was ‘Xena, Warrior Princess’ and an artist from the neighborhood fashioned breast plates that we wore over leotards and we all made ourselves skirts. We are always getting together with our sewing machines and creating costumes, enjoying the anticipation.”
“Last year, the ‘Vestal Virgin’ theme provided lots of entertainment,” added next-door-neighbor and borough council member Elizabeth Goreham. “We made stylized wigs for ourselves and, of course, togas.”
The cross-generational group of women included Slingerland’s mother, Harriet, who cut a brilliant swath through the crowd in the multi-colored satin cape. Mid-party, a contingent of witches delivered a plateful of party snacks to a shut-in across the street, pausing to allow a young male driver who proceeded as though he had blinders fastened to his head.
Isn’t this supposed to be a food column? There was food. It’s a potluck type of event, so there were tiny finger sandwiches with olives and cream cheese, sushi, scones, Welsh cakes, tasty dips and spreads, a pine nut pie and a crowd-pleasing giant bowl of corn curls. But this is not an event that is about food. It is about women. About a woman who celebrates a different female archetype as a rite of spring and her female friends who delight in celebrating with her. It’s about life — and making the most of it on a cold Sunday afternoon, when spring won’t quite come.
Anne Quinn Corr is the author of “Seasons of Central Pennsylvania,” of several iBook cookbooks (“Food, Glorious Food!” “What’s Cooking?!” and “Igloo: Recipes to Cure the Winter Blues”) that are available for free on iTunes. She regularly posts to the blog HowToEatAndDrink.com and can be reached at email@example.com.