My side of our family made its perennial pilgrimage to our farmhouse on the Saturday between Christmas and New Year’s Day. We fed 24.
I always fret before this annual event.
The four-room core of our house was built back in the 1850s, a modern day “tiny house” well before its time. It is just right for my wife and me and perhaps four guests.
More than four? We do not walk past each other. We turn sideways and slide, bumping butts, hoisting food bowls to shoulder height to allow for the scurrying of pre-teen rug rats while stocking up the table.
I worry that our family has outgrown our capacity to host all of them.
My wife just gives me “the look.”
To Maryellen, cooking for groups is as much fun as it is for me to run the growly, gnarly snow blower, making driveway space for everyone.
She makes big meals seem effortless.
This year, slowed by recent surgery, I only supervised the snow blowing. Grandson Peter horsed the machine back and forth. Grandson Andrew helped tend to chickens and other barn chores. Granddaughter Anna swept the sidewalk and porch clear. Inside, she even stocked the dishwasher.
Once the larger groups arrived, coats went hither, food was carried thither, with everybody gabbing and pitching in while I realized my pre-event fears had been groundless.
That 1850s “tiny house” got an add-on kitchen in the 1890s. In 2000 it gained an attached garage topped by a “bonus room” that accommodates a bed, dressers, futons, a massive oak dinner table and enough space to allow for three or four white folding tables to be set up.
A “bucket brigade” of children, spouses, grandchildren, spouses, etc., trundles the food and dishes upstairs from the kitchen, then clears things back down before the opening of gifts.
Some families are polite about this. They pass out wrapped presents, and then sit patiently while one person opens an entire stack, one at a time. Then another person does the same, and on and on.
Our family? Hah!
The gifts get passed out. Paterfamilias (that’s me) shouts, “Go!”
Paper flies, and gets wadded up and playfully bounced off someone. Children scurry, grown-ups laugh. Nobody really knows what everyone else got, but the air is filled with “Neat!” and “Thank you!”
A round of “gag gifts” follows. The gifts range from the mundane to the ridiculous or mildly risqué. Each new recipient is entitled to “trade” with previous gift-getters. That leads to merriment and, with the “trading,” gentle risibility.
After that, the crowd thins out. Some leave early for long trips, using cell phones to check roads for weather and traffic problems. Others stay to chat. Some don’t leave until the next morning.
The grandchildren, all 16 of them, have become too physically big to stay here. When they were preschoolers, a half-dozen could sleep on mattressed floors or couches. Six-footers can’t scrunch within the available floor space.
This year, a nearby motel got three rooms filled with our spillovers. I usually argue with my sons about who pays. When I was working, I generally won. Now, retired, I still put up a fight but gracefully lose, as they tell us, “You do all that work, we’ll pay the motel bills!”
A day later, we cleaned up. I sent an Internet message with an iPhone photo of left-behind gloves and a query: “Where should I mail these?” Before I hauled two huge boxes of torn and shredded wrappings out to the burn barrel, I brought a third box from the basement. I transferred the torn apart gift wrappings slowly from a filled box to a new box, searching for left-behind pieces of Christmas presents or perhaps some silverware swept up in the we-all-pitch-in cleanup.
I found none this year. In previous years, I have found forks and ping-pong balls, one earring from a costume jewelry set, even a delicate figurine of Mrs. Santa Claus.
After repackaging, “Grandpa Garbage” started the burn barrel fire, and then hauled boxes of cans, jars and bottles that had held everything from olive oil to beer to the recycling center.
We washed and put away the tablecloths and returned the borrowed table. We stripped the sheets from beds used by stay-over family in preparation for the next visit.
Then, at about midday, my wife and I paused, listening, straining to hear.
The washing machine gurgled. The clothes dryer spun. The dishwasher hummed.
But not another human voice was to be heard.
I looked at my wife. She looked at me.
Some decades ago, those might have been amorous looks.
These days? Hah.
“Nap?” I ask.
“You bet!” she responds.
Another successful holiday gathering.
[Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren, and former publisher of The Leader-Vindicator. He lives near Brookville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org]