This week my little family – husband, three-year-old son, and self – flew three thousand miles, from Southern California to Northern Kentucky, to spend a little quality time with the in-laws. It’s been a couple years since we’ve visited, due, in part, to the aforementioned three-year-old and our concern that the average Delta flight couldn’t stock enough liquor and earplugs to make the journey bearable for the rest of the passengers. But we mustered up our nerve, and our mood-stabilizers, and made the trip.I’m incredibly glad we did, not so much because the flight was a breeze – it most definitely was not – but because setting foot inside my in-laws’ house is an adventure, in the best possible way. They’ve got family traditions I just can’t replicate in my own home. And I don’t mean Bourbon and Euchre. I could replicate those, though I flat-out suck at Euchre. Given enough Bourbon, I don’t notice my epically tragic skills as much, but the traditions I speak of are slightly harder to emulate.
Tradition number one: Home with a capital “H.” My in-laws live in the same circa 1970’s rancher in which they raised my husband and all five of his siblings. They bought the three bedrooms, one-and-a-half bath slice of the American dream new when it was part of a small, affordable suburb reasonably close to work, school, etc., and they eventually built-out the basement to accommodate their expanding family. Over the years they’ve re-painted, re-carpeted, modernized the kitchen and bathrooms, but the fundamental character of the place remains unchanged. It’s a home … comfortable, functional, and welcoming. Nowadays Grandma and Grandpa have six adult children, a handful of sons and daughter-in-laws, and seventeen grandchildren ranging in age from twelve weeks to college freshman. All of them, except us, live in the general vicinity. There’s a relative or two, or twenty, running through the house at any given moment, which yields a kind of cozy chaos we don’t see in our three-person household. This brings us to tradition number two: Food. If you’re going to have upwards of thirty people passing through, you’ve got to have plenty of food, and it’s got to be handy. Because of this, my mother-in-law’s kitchen table serves as a shrine to the snack aisle at Kroger’s. The opulence of colors, textures and shapes covering the surface are enough to make a Dutch painter weep – shiny Mylar chip bags, transparent-topped pastry boxes … an indescribable piece of decadence called a “chocolate ho-ho.”
For the past few days our son has happily stuffed his little face with every crunchy, salty, sugary treat within reach. Don’t get me wrong, he consumes plenty of junk at home. But we can’t compete with the sheer variety offered on the all-you-can-eat buffet of crap he’s discovered here. After chomping into his very first Frito, he turned to me, face full of awe, and asked, “Mommy, what is this?”
“It’s a corn chip.” “How do you make it?”
“Um … you buy them at the store.” His eyes went wide. The look he shot me said clearer than any words he could possibly string together: Are you freaking kidding me? This culinary excellence has been within reach my entire life? Our trust is dead, lady.
How could I respond? I shoved another handful of Fritos in my mouth and looked away. The little guy also now knows the day doesn’t actually end at seven thirty p.m. -- and I have learned there is absolutely no point in trying to put your kid to bed at his normal bedtime when there are seven hundred other kids under the age of fifteen running around downstairs having the time of their lives. Trust me on this. Do not bother.
Yesterday introduced yet another tradition – the monthly birthday celebration. In a family this size, celebrating each birthday as a stand-alone occasion becomes a logistical nightmare. Instead they gather at the grandparents’ house on the designated Sunday, play in the backyard, talk, laugh, eat, sing “Happy Birthday,” and take a bunch of pictures. No bouncy houses, no hired entertainers, and (gasp), no gift bags for the attendees. The birthday folks leave with their presents and the rest of us walk away with the joy of the shared celebration. And you know what? I love it. The whole thing is wonderful to the point I almost cry. Many of the siblings own beautiful houses, just as centrally located, but, to me, at least, changing the venue would mess with the magic. I think part of wonderfulness the lies in the perfect simplicity of gathering at a place full of memories and meaning for all of them … of coming home.
Have your own home-spun traditions? I’m sitting here, munching on Fritos, waiting to hear all about them.