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This article originally appeared in the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California and is reprinted with permission of the author.
This was the 11th hour.
Tomorrow was the caterer's absolutely final luncheon-head-count date. It was 10 days after the date on the RSVP card enclosed with my daughter's Bat Mitzvah invitation, which asked prospective guests to let me know if they were coming.
Five people hadn't responded yet: three teens and two adults.
I couldn't put off the dreaded phone calls any longer.
What do people think RSVP means? Respond, if it pleases you?
I rehearsed what I was going to say and made my first call.
"We can't decide what to do," my would-be guest said. "Can we bring the kids?"
I hadn't invited them. They didn't know my daughter or her friends and were considerably younger than the rest of the children. And the luncheon wasn't being catered by McDonald's. Kids' meals cost $25 each.
"I don't think they'll enjoy it," I said, and explained why. I really wanted to ask how much her children would eat.
"They're very comfortable with adults," the woman said of her five and seven year old. "Just put them at our table."
"RSVPs are the ultimate aggravation," says Joanne Neuman, party planner and owner of Party City in Walnut Creek, California.
Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations present their own specific problems. Many non-Jews don't understand the occasion. Neuman recommends including a note in the invitation describing the various rituals and suggesting proper attire. Once people understand the importance of the event, they're more likely to RSVP.
Claudia Felson, a Castro Valley party planner, says: "It's common courtesy to respond to an invitation as soon as you know whether or not you can come. It's very embarrassing for the hostess to have to call."
When it comes to weddings, the RSVP fallout can be disastrous because there are two families involved. Imagine broaching such conversations with people your daughter's future mother-in-law invited.
Neuman offers a strategy for handling such situations. "People have to be responsible for their own families," she says. It takes the onus off the bride when the groom takes charge of his own difficult family members.
"Don't start a war."
But what about the guest who wants to bring a date or Aunt Tillie, who happens to be visiting from Tennessee?
"Your personal reason [for refusing] is the best because it's honest," Neuman advises, whether the reason is financial or whether it involves a pre-arrangement that children under a certain age will not be included.
My four remaining calls were easier. One mother said she had just found the invitation that morning tucked neatly under her son's bed. (That could happen in our house.) Two apologized for being late. (I've been there.) One said her child never received an invitation. This time I apologized and promised to drop one off.
I gave the caterer my final count and set to work on seating arrangements.
On the day of the Bat Mitzvah, I learned how much RSVPs really meant.
To my surprise, the friends who had asked to bring their two children arrived with only one child. Then after the service, they announced that they couldn't stay for lunch because they had to go to their other youngster's soccer game. I smiled, said I was disappointed, mentally scratched them from future guest lists and watched as $150 in prepaid meals walked out the door.
Some people didn't show up and others came who said they wouldn't. Of course, there was the odd assortment of uninvited toddlers.
My carefully thought-out seating arrangements were falling apart. Where would I put the unexpected guests and how would I close the gaps left by the no-shows?
According to Felson and Neuman, this happens all the time, although both agree it throws a hostess off balance.
"So much care goes into planning the tables," says Felson. "If people come that you weren't planning on, that's really awkward."
But a little advance planning can remedy the situation.
"A caterer can usually accommodate up to five more people," says Neuman. She recommends bringing a few blank place cards and asking the caterer to add place settings.
At least I didn't have any Bat Mitzvah crashers. A friend of mine was not so lucky.
She spotted two boys wearing shorts and T-shirts at her son's Saturday-night Bar Mitzvah party. Knowing the boys hadn't been invited, she escorted them out of the party and told them to call their parents.
When she went back in, she saw two more boys, also uninvited and similarly attired. She instructed them to join the other two outside.
But what surprised her most was the mothers' reaction.
After apologizing, one of the mothers admitted it was "foolish" to assume that her son would have been invited, since he had not received a formal invitation.
The other mother abdicated all responsibility, saying she wasn't the carpool driver that night.
Neuman says asking crashers to leave is absolutely appropriate and recommends having a friend do the dirty work for you.
"It's easier if you don't know the kids and it's not your party," says Neuman.
But most of all, don't let these glitches ruin the party for you. So what if one table has six people and another has ten or if an unexpected guest has to wait five minutes while a place is being set?
"This is not a show," says Neuman. "This is a religious event. You don't have to be perfect."