When relatives come to visit us in Brooklyn (image from Monty Python)
The amount of stuff crammed beneath every bed in our house really can’t be quantified. I’ve never come close the Container Store/Bed, Bath & Beyond-induced loss of faculties and purchased plastic shrink-wrap bags for storage—if you find yourself thinking you should sous-vide your clothing, you have too many possessions and too much time. You’ve also become unhinged and should lie down and fan yourself. Those pants are never fitting you again. Not without a pair of pliers. Maybe give some stuff away or move to Montclair. The Colonial will have a garage to fill with nifty plastic tubs precisely for the stuff that’s never fitting again. You also won’t have to contort yourself under the bed to vacuum dust bunnies off the shriveled bags of Precious Things, stacked like plastic raisins.
At this merry time of year, there is even more foreign, but seasonally critical, material jammed under all of our beds; one Queen and two sets of bunks. Twenty different Christmas presents hidden from the kids, rolls of brown paper to tie up with string and polka-dot washi tape because I’m too alternative (read: yuppie, lame) for Santa wrap (read: what kids actually want, why am I such a control freak?), REI equipment, a black Adidas sock lost six months ago, and a broken Inkjet.
Writer Renee Dale
If you were able to somehow levitate the beds in our house and hover above the arrangements of stuff, you’d see a carefully composed anatomy of detritus. The beating heart of the whole composition is the Aeorbed Collection, the life preserver of Brooklyn holiday hosts. We have the full compliment of mattress sizes—don’t be jealous!—Queen, Twin, and weird Toddler-sized raft. I don’t think anyone ever slept on that one; it looks like it’s designed for a large house cat. The dulcet tones of Bing and Burl floating through Christmas Eve are, by necessity, interrupted at bedtime by a cacophony of air-mattresses inflating all over the place. If you’ve ever stood there, your finger on the inflation trigger, staring down blankly at the thing ballooning to life, you’d agree that even though it’s oddly satisfying to watch it flop around, all you’re thinking about is the poor night’s sleep that is your destiny.
One December, before my brother moved to a sleek tower in Williamsburg, there were so many people sleeping in my apartment that my air mattress ended up at the foot of the refrigerator, where I was lulled all night by the vibration of the motor. It wasn’t bad, even vaguely amniotic, but really, is it normal for a grownup to sleep on the kitchen floor? I sometimes look out the window at the buildings across the way as I blow up the bed and wonder how many other urbanites are doing the same, analyzing their choice to live in vertical, domestic asphyxiation.
This procedure, with its whine of what sounds like suburban leaf blowers, is standard when family comes to visit. And lots of family, whether you’re ready or not, is coming to town. They’re going to have huge sacks of gifts, wheelie-suitcases, Currier & Ives cookie tins, novelty items, colorful plastic toys, tissue paper billowing from drugstore gift bags, coats you have nowhere to hang, and the expectation of a chair on which to sit. Also, questions about street parking. Are you ready to contend with all of this? Do you have the chairs?
These people don’t really get why you live in such close quarters and don’t know how you do it, so you’d better be prepared to show them how we roll here in Brooklyn, and host them with confidence. Provide them with top-notch air mattresses, Ikea folding chairs to slip a disc by, absolutely no TV on Christmas, and lots of wine and stinky cheeses. Because for a number of days in and around the holidays, you and your family need to understand one another. You are all going to get very, very close. I mean physically. They see you when you’re sleeping, and also, they know when you’re awake. Because they’re right next to you! Asking you to turn the heat up a smidge and leave on a bathroom light.
I want our guests to feel at home when they come for the holiday. They’re all great people and I love them like family—because they are family. They’ve come all this way to Brooklyn, where we insist on hosting the whole shebang for the sake of the kids. We want our kids to wake up in their own beds and find presents under the tree in their own cramped living room. We want them to stroll around in pj’s for half the day with wrapping paper stuck to their socks. Luckily all the grandparents agree, even though here in Brooklyn we can’t recreate the holidays of our youth, where there was space for dozens of flickering candles, lights in every window and evergreen garlands dripping from every archway. We don’t have room to display Mimi’s festive yet unsettling Christmas teddy bear army, or Gam’s platoon of Nutcrackers; we don’t have allocations for potted poinsettias or a trio of stout red candles with tree trunk diameters. (Maybe the grandparents didn’t see my avant-garde lemon and clove centerpiece last year, or my glittery reindeer terrarium and antique snow globes? Maybe that didn’t say Christmas to them?) For all of Brooklyn’s charms, we lose things in apartment living like…staging areas, festive tableaus, storage for gilded napkin rings. A nice way of saying: There isn’t a spot to put a Single. Damn. Thing. There’s a chance that if you form a “coat pile” for guests, it’s on top of a human being.
There is a rush of guilt and shame when we send some of our relatives to their rented Air B&B crash pad — it would feel better to be able to offer them a bed and some privacy here, but we can’t. And it would be nice if we had extra bathrooms for guests too. As it is, ours are already oversubscribed by three males, and verge on Port Authority restroom conditions after a party. But we make do and our relatives graciously Air B&B it like champs.
What we CAN do well here is order bank-breaking beef tenderloin from Paisanos on Smith Street and cook it to perfection. Everyone devours it with equal gusto. Same for the Flintstonian standing rib roast we sometimes serve. My stepfather, a retired butcher, loves the giant slab of flesh, but so do the grandmothers, multiple uncles, drop-in guests, and all of the kids, even the eight-year-old who protests, apropos of nothing, that roast beef and cherries is actually the appropriate Christmas meal. My mother gets to witness her grandchildren eating, which is a nice hedge against her ongoing concern about their painful thinness. So thin, so very thin. You’re so busy; can I make them something they like? She mentioned last year that she could see my son’s heart beating through his shirt. So the meal is a triumph and a relief, as feeding relatives the food we enjoy can sometimes cause cortisol levels to rise. A friend recently told me that when her family came for a visit from New Mexico, they were so shocked by prices at Prime Meats that two of them SHARED a glass of wine and a single entrée. They said they were fine with it. In general, dining with out-of-towners not accustomed to long waits is the very definition of diminishing returns.
We can make space in our fridge for wine, for three different kinds of beer, and for the Diet soft drinks all the grandparents like. We will also remind the kids not to exclaim to the grandparents that drinking Caffeine-free Cherry Coke Zero Plus with Lime Mist will kill them, something they do often and with obnoxious precocity. A lot of family time when you have children involves striking a balance between revealing what a clenched, controlling Alpha you are as a parent, and letting the relatives spoil the kids and openly judge your retentiveness. Two more hunks of peppermint bark for breakfast and dart games in a city apartment, Sure, no big deal. If your mother can cope with the confines of your “kitchen,” shred a pound of Gruyere for your gratin, and then sleep on your lumpy pillows, she is entitled to buy your daughter toys the size of compact cars without prior consent. Gramps has every right to buy your son that Miami Heat poster even though it clashes with the Hunt Club décor you worked so hard to compose in the kids’ room.
I am getting much better at relishing all of this. In the past, I might have spent more time with table settings and toy control and limits on red and green. I might have spent more time varying the holiday menu—a progressive take on an old standby! Or made a trip to purchase fancy bricks of butter at the 50,000 square-foot Whole Foods in Gowanus rather than at the Henry Street Met right next door. Yes, a butter-buying event might have occurred. Not because I was a frivolous boob or a Scrooge, but because I wanted to create my own mold for holidays once I had children. And I did this while somehow forgetting that what I loved about holidays as a kid was the routine and predictability of things. I wanted everything the same every year. Why am I now looking for innovative ways to cram parsnips into the menu? Once, I spent an entire day making the components of an elaborate English trifle. I bought a special trifle dish. I layered it surgically. The finished dessert was a work of art—I took more pictures of it than I did of my kids. By the end of the night, two people had dug their spoons into the masterpiece. I was one of them. Everyone else inhaled a baker’s dozen of cookies each and some pie. Even as I placed the heavy bowl in the fridge well past midnight, after setting out all the presents under the tree, I knew it was going to be tipped into the trash.
I try to remember this as our house fills up with piles of things and chaos and all of the people we love, each with their own holiday needs and agendas. I remembered it a few Christmases ago when we’d given out all of our extra blankets to guests and I was forced to sleep wearing my full-length down coat as bedding. My fiancé and I couldn’t stop laughing at the absurdity, muffling our snickers so as not to wake my snoring brother on the couch, and we laughed all over again in the morning when we rolled over to embrace each other in puffer jackets. I’m going to remember it when it’s easy, like this weekend when our kids decorated the tree as it snowed outside, and when it’s hard, like the week after Christmas, during the consumption hangover. The grim reality of Lego Display and Toy Storage will be upon me then like a foot on my windpipe.
Last year, at the table, we played a party game. My fiancé and I created questions beforehand and wrote them on squares of paper. There was a bowl of kid questions and a bowl of adult questions, and each guest chose one to answer during their turn. Some of them were off-color, hilariously provocative, and some were designed to make our reserved loved ones share things about themselves they normally wouldn’t. We all had to talk about times we were embarrassed, and times we were proud or afraid.
One of our older relatives was asked how she might have spent her life differently if she could do it over again. Before we went back to eating and corralling kids and tearing into presents, we listened to her talk, and watched her eyes light up with shy excitement. She shared some of her retired hopes, her regrets. The grandchildren paid quiet attention. She looked like a child sitting there. That night, after all of the holiday chores were done, when I plugged my mattress into the wall and waited for it to inflate, it was all I could think about. It was so lovely, so filled with emotion.
This year, I plan to force all of our relatives to play the Questions game again. Even if they don’t want to. And if not, someone’s getting the Toddler Aerobed.
Renee Dale is a writer living in (where else?) Brooklyn. She and her fiancé and their four kids live in a narrow, tilting “house” in Cobble Hill. Or is it Carroll Gardens? When Renee isn’t writing, she’s engaged in various museum and natural history pursuits and can often be found lurking the Hall of African Mammals. In this column, she will bring her anthropological talents to bear, covering everything from parenting to local news to whatever else bursts forth in our Brooklyn life and times.
Read Renee’s other columns:
Brady Bunch Brooklyn: Renee’s Very Modern Family
The Awkward Stew: You and Your Sitter at 1 a.m. http://southbrooklynpost.com/2013/11/renee-dale-the-awkward-stew/
This Problem is Not Sexy: Too Early Sexualization of Girls http://southbrooklynpost.com/2013/11/renee-dale-sexualization-of-girls/
Rated P for Permanent: Dale advocates for adding some R-rated classics to your child’s repertoire
A Little S&M With Your Crispy Kale: Dining in Brooklyn
Home, Sick: Face It. Nothing Is Getting Done Today
She tweets @ReneeMDale
Visit Renee’s website: reneedale.com