Just Us?

When my husband and I host large or small gatherings at our home, we always follow a few party-prep rules. We light candles, dim the lights, and make sure there’s background music playing. Always. If it’s chilly outside, we light a cozy fire in the fireplace. Like atmospheric ice-breakers that inject a big dose of relaxation, the soft lighting, happy tunes, and warm blaze jump-start any party. From there, a joyful mood is set almost quicker than you can strike a match.

Low lighting and good tunes are simple elements that can enhance any gathering. My parents, too, knew about party essentials. When I was growing up and it was nearly party time at our house, I’d hear them lighting a fire, filling an ice bucket, peeling lemons and limes, and tuning up the stereo. Right before sitting down for dinner, Mom would light several candles.

My parents’ get-togethers with friends weren’t much different than our family’s holiday gatherings, including both Thanksgiving and Christmas. With several brothers and sisters coming in on different days from different colleges or cities, the festive season had the feel of a reunion to it.

Those of us who still lived at home couldn’t wait for our older siblings to appear. More than once, the oldest of us and her husband would drive from the East Coast with their little ones in tow, adding instant zest to the extravaganza. Loud chatter would fill the living room as we gathered around the fire, sharing news of our lives or rolling a ball along a living room Bocce course.

Yells and roughhousing would be heard from the lower level, as my brothers competed in ping-pong and pool. Our dog would amble in and out of rooms looking for scraps left over from appetizers, or get in my mom’s way while she scurried around in the kitchen from stovetop to fridge to counter to oven, whipping up gourmet fare. The doors to the outside would open and close, bringing in chilly air that would whip through the mudroom following Dad’s request to get more logs or chill the Champagne bottles in the snow.

We’d frequently have a houseguest, like my godmother from New York, who never married or had a family of her own. There was also a woman from Colorado who sometimes came at Thanksgiving. She was an old friend of my parents who had never married. I recall vividly her bright long red nails catching the light at the game table as she sipped eggnog and shuffled cards for gin rummy. One year, a widow from next store sat at our holiday table. I usually helped Mom set the table the day before and never knew for sure how many there would be. Is it just us? Or?

As years passed and my husband and I moved into our own home and had kids, my parents would start their holiday celebrations at my sister’s home in Ann Arbor for Christmas Eve, and arrive at our home by midday on Christmas. I remember the year they couldn’t come, due to a snowstorm. “It’s just us,” I told my husband and sons, hanging up the phone. “What a weird Christmas Day,” my young sons agreed, as the snow piled up outside the great room windows and we quietly gathered around a blazing fire wishing for more family, already cherishing memories of the night before at our annual Christmas Eve celebration dinner with my brother-in-law’s family.

The 25th of December saw lots of happy surprises, too, like the year my brother from Ohio and his wife and kids joined my mother and us at our home. I also recall a surprise knock on the door from my oldest sister, who flew to metro Detroit from Connecticut one Christmas morning with her husband and a few of their kids. So many people and not enough room at our table, so blankets were spread on the floor and all the kids dined picnic-style. The more the merrier, for sure.

As we continue this crazy COVID year, I wonder what this holiday season will look like for my family. What will yours be like? For us, I doubt there will be large gatherings and traveling family members appearing out of nowhere. Will it be just us? My sons are already asking.

Small gatherings and smaller family get-togethers probably will be the norm this season. But like the beautiful homes in this issue, ours will be ready for anything, whether a miracle occurs and large groups turn up, or if it’s just us — which is, of course, a godsend in itself. Our Christmas tree-adorned great room has new dimmer switches and LED lighting, a pile of logs for the fire, and a playlist that’s ready to go.

Happy holidays!