Hosting the Holidays

I have been lucky enough to spend the vast majority of my holidays with the very same group of family for all of my forty-four years.  For my entire childhood, my Mom hosted Christmas and my Aunt hosted Thanksgiving.  It was set in stone and, as far as I know, not really a discussion.  We all just knew where we would be on those most symbolic of holidays.

These were lovely traditional gatherings.  Both dinner tables featured turkeys, and I’m not just referring to the errant odd relative, cranberry sauce, and margarine, not butter.  They were predictable and warm and so very anticipated.  When I was a kid, I loved, loved, loved those gatherings — even more so than the presents under the tree.

I never thought too much about the work attached to hosting a family event, but I do remember how stressful it was for my Mom.  My folks’ marriage, I think — cause honestly, who really knows — was quite a bit different than my own marriage.  My husband, unlike my Dad, does the holiday cooking.  Trust me when I say that if I were ever to host a Thanksgiving dinner independently, it would be turkey tacos on the menu.  I stick to what I do best — cleaning our home, setting a beautiful table, making certain people not only eat good food, but eat it in a warm and special setting.

I could never cook a turkey people would want to eat, but then again, Mary Tyler Dad would never think to spray the table with mini gourds or arrange a vase of flowers.  Yin and yang, style and substance.  It works for us.
I could never cook a turkey people would want to eat, but then again, Mary Tyler Dad would never think to spray the table with mini gourds or arrange a vase of flowers. Yin and yang, style and substance. It works for us.

After my Mom was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died less than a year later, well, the holidays were in a bit of a flux on our end.  My folks never again lived in the home they shared after my Mom got sick.  That home was their retirement home and located three hours outside Chicago.  They rented an apartment in the city to be closer to better medical care and family.  Small apartments with old widowers are not really accommodating to large family gatherings.

Just a couple of years after my Mom died, my daughter was diagnosed with her own brain tumor.

Ho ho ho.

For my husband and I, the holidays will never be the same.

But for most folks sitting around our holiday table, things are as they were before my Mom or daughter died.  Busy, hectic, loving, joyful, blessed.  That is what I want for my sons.  I want them to grow up with what I had and still value — a warm extended family that actually enjoys one another’s company.  We don’t all share the same politics or enjoy the same movies or books or music, but there is honest to goodness love and history there.  Shared love and shared history.

So that is why, just a year after our daughter died, Mary Tyler Dad and I made the choice to move into hosting the holidays.  We knew our limitations, so we opted for Thanksgiving over Christmas.  Taking the tree and presents out of the equation put the focus on food and family.  We could handle that.  With pleasure.

The devil is in the details.  Turkey shaped butter.  Butter tastes better when it's shaped like a turkey!
The devil is in the details. Turkey shaped butter. Butter tastes better when it’s shaped like a turkey!

This was our third Thanksgiving that we’ve hosted since making that choice. There are a new generation of cousins running around and causing mischief. They are all five and under.  Donna, who would have been the elder statesman of this generation of cousins, is only with us in her framed image that looks down over the table.  But Donna always loved a party, so that is what we try to create.

As an adult now, and a grieving adult at that, I so feel the stress that my Mom must have felt each and every Christmas in her own hosting duties.  My Dad was always there on the holidays, but he is from a different generation.  He carved the turkey, sure, but he didn’t cook it or stuff it or purchase it.  Just like he paid for the Christmas gifts, but didn’t choose or wrap them.  Different division of labor.  I get it.

I laugh now (it’s easy a week after my hosting responsibilities have ended) as the holiday season approaches and I can feel my stress level rise.  I always feel closer to my Mom during these days and say a silent “thank you” for everything she did to give us so many beautiful and warm holidays.  A few weeks ago I read a blog post chastising people from stressing over making a holiday dinner.  Pffft.  Honestly?  If I am hosting 25 people for a sit down dinner, I am allowed to stress.  You know why?  Because it’s stressful.  End of story.

Even with my husband “man”ning the kitchen, there are still a hell of a lot of things to accomplish to make a warm and comfortable gathering for two dozen folks.  There is cleaning and linens and table setting and flowers and shopping and stowing of random bric a brac that always manages to be most present this time of year.  There are closets to clear for extra coats and a kids table to figure out.  There are outfits to coordinate for two brothers.   There is furniture to move to accommodate all these folks in a dining room made for half their numbers.

The kid table.  I actually wanted to eat here myself.
The kid table. I actually wanted to eat here myself.

It’s work, yo.

But, hallelajuh, what joyful work it is, even if I do curse in the moment.  And, damn it if I am not lucky to have this kind of work.

One of the things I put in place when we started hosting was a gratitude toast.  Ha!  All my relatives make fun of me and a few even roll their eyes.  I don’t care.  Those eye rolls are all in fun and what’s the sense of gathering on Thanksgiving if we can’t, for a few short moments, tell one another, the people we love most in this world, about our blessings?  One of my finest moments this Thanksgiving was my cousin who revealed in his toast that he thought about it ahead of time.  Three cheers for gratitude!

In my own toast, I always like to say the names of the people we are missing.  I don’t know why, but like most families, my own doesn’t talk enough about those we love who have died.  I don’t understand it myself, cause if we don’t talk about them who will?  Say the names, people.  Say the names.  Jack and Carolyn and Donna and Donna.  See?  It’s not so hard.  Say the names of those you love who have passed before.

But this year, generating snickers and hoots all around, I also expressed gratitude for having people to cook and clean for.  This was not a martyr’s wail — woe is me who had to brush ground in graham cracker crumbs out of the living room rug before guests arrived.  NO.  This was a grateful woman’s words of wonder that I am that lucky human being who has a room full of people in my home whom I get to cook and clean for, who willingly come to our home to celebrate a sacred day of gratitude.

Everything is better with chocolate -- even the holidays.
Everything is better with chocolate — even the holidays.

How amazing is that?  How lucky am I?

My Mom taught me well, she did.  And, like my Mom, I, too, will always and forever stress over hosting the holidays.  But never for a moment misinterpret that stress as a lack of gratitude or a complaint.  No way.  Despite my hardships, I am one hell of a lucky lady.  I get to spend my holidays with people I love, and whom, I think, love me.

Happy hosting holidays, folks.  If you are hosting, remember these words as you plan that menu and iron those linens and wonder where that 12th spoon has gone off to.  What a lucky freaking person you are.

Happy holidays, from me to you.

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