Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sappy Holidays

I knew well before we got to my sister's house that the halls would be impeccably decked.  My sister has devoted her life to making sure every one of her children's life experiences comes as close to the movie version as possible.  I'm not sure which is more impressive, actually, her near-obsessive dedication or the frequency with which she generally succeeds.  

Most of the time.  

Halloween, Summer Barbecues, Birthdays - she's a whiz.  But it all comes a little unglued at Christmas, when she and my brother-in-law host their biggest gathering of the year.  Yes, the house looks fabulous, like it was decorated by elves and reindeer and Rockettes; like one of those movies where the family gathers for a festive holiday and celebrates a spontaneous engagement, a miraculous recovery from cancer, or a madcap series of misunderstandings.  Still, in real life you can't keep the guests from destroying your veneer of a picture-book Christmas.  Somewhere between 30 and 50 people show up at my sister and brother-in-law's home and you're never quite sure if you'll wind up dealing with a newly minted lesbian (2006), someone's octogenarian boyfriend (2007), or the arrival of an ambulance (2008).  

(Christmas Lesson 842: consuming tranquilizers and lots of liquor on an empty stomach doesn't result in a Martha Stewart Holiday.  More like Betty Ford.  The EMTs were cute, though.)

Oh, and every year someone barfs in her guest bathroom.  Every family has their traditions....

Neil and I were accompanied by our friend Antoinette, who's been to this circus before (and may have been 2007's Holiday Heaver.)  We could have recited the menu well in advance, since my sister has it catered.   From the cocktail shrimp to the meatballs and ziti, to my tray of homemade Christmas cookies - everything sort of remains the same.

And yet, it doesn't.  Yes, my brother-in-law's father may wind up doing his live version of Fox News - that mix of misinformation and fear that has become particularly resonant with aging white men as they recede into an ethnic minority in a world they no longer understand.  Yes, my own father will spend half the evening smoking on the porch while his lover speaks to - well - no one.  Yes, my sister will not have a conversation longer than five words as she spins from one hosting task to the next.  

But something was different this year - or maybe it was me.

My mother, who is usually content to attend the event as a guest - sitting on the couch stuffing her face and passing judgement (it runs in the family), actually brought something.  A spinach dip she's been making since the dawn of time (Oh please, the recipe is on the back of the Knorr's Vegetable Soup box - I'm not writing it here - I've got a point to make.)  Yes, she decorated the top with paprika - which is her idea of adding a festive flair (as a child, I always knew when company was coming when everything edible in the house got a sprinkling of McCormick Paprika) - but it tasted just as good as it did 25 years ago.  I think I also saw her put something away.

My sister took a break from whirling like a dervish to recite a very clever, and very funny, poem she had written (this talent runs in the family.)  It was a testament to her family, and to Christmas, and for the first time I thought about the holiday over the continuum of time...

My first Christmas after moving back to New York, when she was pregnant with Amelia.  The following christmas I brought Neil, who I asked to marry me six days later.  And on and on.  Since my sister and brother-in-law began hosting the holiday we've grown to include their three children, my husband, my mother and father's significant others, and sort-of-step-brothers-and-sisters.  The menu might be the same - but we sure aren't.  And not just in size or structure - we've all gotten a little older, a little calmer, and we seem to like each other more - or at least become more tolerant of the things that annoy us.

Except maybe the guest dressed in a gold lame tank top and a motorcycle belt whose outfit only seemed to be lacking a lamppost and public defender.

The following day it was Neil's family's turn.  For the past several years we've visited Neil's Aunt and Uncle who live in Westchester.  And - yes - it is another holiday with a recurring menu and a recurring guest list.  

But I love it.  

We've gotten to see his cousin's son grow from an unnaturally happy baby into an unnaturally happy toddler (no kidding - this kid has the best disposition I've ever seen) - and a Big Brother when their newborn arrived almost ten months ago.  We've seen another cousin get married, and a third grow into his first job.  Everyone's always welcome - Michael's girlfriend (the coolest person ever), the other Michael's girlfriend (when was the last time you met a 20-something who wanted to go to space), some weird belly dancer lady who actually didn't show up this year and something felt missing as a result.  

Until you marry, you never really appreciate how nice it is to become part of someone else's family to the point where they consider you their own.  If nothing else, it makes you feel better that your own family isn't the only completely insane one on the planet.  And somewhere between the seven-layer dip  and the Christmas cookies (yes, I brought a batch here - I always do...) you think about how lucky you are.

Or maybe I should stop drinking when I'm on medication.


Wow, this entry is so much more sentimental than I expected it to be.  I was counting on a posting that rhymed lyrics from Let It Snow, like frightful and delightful, with words like "spiteful."  Yet all I can seem to think about is how beautiful my sister looked.  Or how charming my niece is becoming, so smart and articulate.  Or how funny her little sister is, dressed like Batman and flying around the living room.  Or how nice Neil's cousin-in-law is - a Southern Baptist country boy mucking it up with a mix of Yankee Catholics and Jews (maybe we should invite Congress to our Christmas celebration.) Or how Neil's cousins - and their cousins - all seem to enjoy each other's company like friends (my cousin's are a different story - but there's a family Bar Mitzvah in two weeks, so just hang in there.  If you're up for tales of resentment, divorce, harsh judgment and people who don't see each other very often getting drunk and airing family resentments, you're in for a doozy.)

And the tone is all wrong now to review Isabella's (77th and Columbus - we ate there last night.  The wine list is excellent (get the Syrah) and the food is always seasonal, well-prepared, and flavorful (I got the short rib - a solid B+, Neil got the Mahi Mahi - an A- which would have been an A if it were warmer.)  

Or to review "It's Complicated" (better than you're average rom com, but classic Nancy Meyers (Something's Gotta Give; What Women Want) - a middle-aged female fantasy pic (nothing wrong with that) where the lead character goes from being sullen, barren and forgotten to a the object of desire for two men - one woefully inappropriate but great fun, the other much more suitable but a little less colorful.  The film is lifted greatly by the performances of Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and John Krasinski (who more than acquits himself on a screen full of heavyweights.)  Steve Martin, doing his "Steve Martin-puppy-dog-thing" he's been perfecting since the eighties (and nailing since "Shopgirl") is amusing, but a non-entity through most of the story.  And rising young talents Zoe Kazan ("Revolutionary Road" and everything on Broadway since 2007 that's required a sullen young women - "100 Saints You Should Know," "The Seagull") and Hunter Parrish ("Weeds," "Spring Awakening") get their screen time with the legends, but this show is all about Meryl and Alec.  She's the only living actress who could make this woman not only appealing but embraceable, and he's the only comic actor in his age range who could make the character more than a punch line, but find his soft, gooey center.)

But I can't do those things because, really, all I can think about is how much the Hermits I made reminded me of these oatmeal fruit bars my father once baked for me while I was away at college.  And even though I probably hadn't spoken to him in weeks (another story; another time) he sent me these awesome cookies which he broke his mixer to make for me.

Anyway, I'm sure the snark will be back soon. Like I said, there's a family event coming up and I'm bound to be less charitable.  And we're having a New Year's Eve party, so you never know what's going to happen there.  I hope it's blog-worthy.

As long as no one barfs in our bathroom.

1 comment:

  1. What can I say? As Red Peters once said, I laughed! I cried! I soiled my undies.

    I actually ate at Isabella's with my cousins back in 1998 I believe, and it was delicious. More importantly, my cousin (who was headed out of town directly afterwards in his zipcar) got THE parking spot right outside the front door. I took a picture.
    Oh yeah! Read that Washington Post article on the decorator who worked with Nancy on Something's Gotta Give and this movie ... DROOL. Can't wait to see it.

    VERY nice, Mr. S. Happy New Year!