Seriously, Sam? is a column that looks at the lighter side of suburban life. This month, Sam reflects on the art of hostessing.
To my large and wonderful extended family; all of the below is said with the utmost love and appreciation.
I am an amazing hostess. Ask anyone who has ever stayed with me, and they’ll back me up on this. I love to have people over, I welcome almost anyone, and I do what I can to make it feel special. Towels monogrammed “guest.” Cozy robes. A selection of pillows of varying densities. I don’t go as far as putting fresh flowers in rooms, but that’s because I can’t get it together to have fresh flowers, period.
My husband is from the West Coast, so any time we spend with his family is a serious “visit,” and I encourage it. “Of course, you should avoid the holiday travel rush and come for 10-days at Thanksgiving. Please, please, please come back for Passover in the spring. Obviously, you must be here for 4th of July fireworks.” And I would never dream of suggesting that they spend even a night of their extended stays in a hotel. We bought our house to ensure that we had enough space for multiple guests at once (possibly to the dismay of my husband.)
Why subject myself to this torture? I think it’s because I grew up a lonely only child with divorced parents. I fantasized about big, joyful, Kennedy-style family gatherings where multiple generations spent days enjoying invigorating outdoor activities (football in the yard, long walks, skiing) and evenings eating homemade meals, playing charades and doing puzzles in front of a roaring fire. My actual holidays were either: a) me and my mom, or, b) my dad, stepmother, half-sister, two cats I was very allergic to and some rogue family members (one of whom later did a stint at Rikers Island.)
Does that help explain why, this Christmukkah, I was delighted to have: my husband, our two kids, two dogs and one lizard; my 27 year-old sister-in-law (on break from business school) and her fiancée (on vacation from his banking job;) my 30-year-old sister-in-law (an art teacher who lives in Arizona and really likes edibles,) my mom and stepfather and my husband’s dad and stepmother, all of whom prefer summer to winter and opt to stay indoors at any sign of snow or ice, spend a week at our place in Colorado? Sure, it was hard, sometimes grueling, work. But I couldn’t help myself; it was a dream come true.
In a mountain town, you must stock up for anything you specifically need in advance. So, I ordered a gift for every guest, fulfilled the Santa and Hanukkah lists for my kids plus something for everyone else to give them, bought a few things for myself (to have my daughter wrap and put under the tree,) and enough stocking stuffers and stockings for everyone (except the lizard). I also made sure Williams-Sonoma delivered several gingerbread house kits, ample cookie cutters, and a deluxe set of rainbow frosting and holiday sprinkles; plus a beautiful menorah from Jonathan Adler. I pulled out my book on high altitude baking. I made a spreadsheet of where everyone would sleep and plotted out every meal, ensuring that we cooked things in the evening that would work as leftovers for lunch or dinner another day. As people started asking me what gifts to get each other, I devised the genius idea of a White Elephant swap – I had to draw the line somewhere.
Christmakkuh was better than a Hallmark movie. We listened to classic Christmas tunes on a loop, baked dozens of cookies, ate, drank and, in spite of the potential for some major eruptions (like my social-worker parents and Trump-supporting father-in-law,) everyone got along. (Thank you, edibles?)
Yet, when everyone was finally gone, my stress levels plummeted. My muscles uncoiled. My body was overtaken by exhaustion. I’ve hosted before, so I already knew that being a hostess is a non-stop frenzy ending in minor misery. But, after this holiday extravaganza, I had to accept that as much as I love being surrounded by family and friends, I might hate it a little too. As both a meditator and analytical problem-solver, I decided it was time to identify what it was about having house guests that was so hard. Turns out, for me, it comes down to just 3 things:
1. The Feedings
Even with 3 refrigerators, (that’s right, 3) it’s almost impossible to stock the house to have enough food to comfortably satiate 12 people for multiple daily meals. So, life becomes a Sisyphean cycle of meal planning, food shopping, cooking, cleaning up, re-heating leftovers, meal planning, food shopping, cooking…Going out is worse. A party bus might solve the logistics of transporting 12 people, but it is impossible to get a reservation for 2 during winter break, so 12 is less likely than finding Waldo in a Hannah Anderson striped-PJ holiday spread. Even ordering pizza takes at least 30 minutes to navigate through allergies and aversions before placing the order. This is vacation?
2. The Coordinating
Try as they might to be self-sufficient, guests need help. Especially when snow sports are involved. Skiiers need passes, gear, and to get to and from the mountain. Non-skiiers need something (besides food shopping) to keep them busy all day. And, even though no one wants to bother you, they need you to chauffeur and guide; which leads me to the final and, shockingly, biggest hostess challenge of all…
3. The Questions
If Google was a person, she would have a nervous breakdown. Even the most patient hostess will eventually break from the constant interruptions of 8 adults trying to be helpful.
“Sorry to bother you, but where does the trash go?” (Do I say “If the garage bins are full, it has to be loaded in the car, driven down to the trash shed and deposited in the proper receptacle, which is behind splinter-ridden doors sealed with frozen combination locks that have to be pulled with all of your weight to open them?” Or just take it out myself?)
“Sorry to ask, but is there more toilet paper?” (Should I offer “If there is, it would be in the garage where I already sent you to look for napkins and paper towels; and, if there isn’t any there, we have to drive down the icy road to the store to buy more?” Or just get up and look with my fingers crossed and my car keys in hand?)
I realized, too late, that my Nespresso machine is Pandora’s box. The coffee is so good that regular drip seems like sludge. But the pods are confounding to the uninitiated. I should have hidden it. Instead, I labeled everything to avoid further questions (Purple small = espresso, Red small = decaf espresso, Red large = decaf coffee, Green large = coffee). Guess what happened? “Sorry to bother you, but which is the strongest coffee?”
Other than up my meditation sessions (and supply of Xanax) during visits, there is apparently nothing I can do to prevent hostess fatigue. Still, I’m already making plans for this summer, and next Thanksgiving, and next Christmas. I’ll happily take the post-guest exhaustion for the special intimacy that only comes from staying under one roof. In fact, when departure day for our guests coincided with a minor blizzard, I was happy to put the newly-cleaned sheets back on beds, call in another massive pizza order, and settle down for a few more rounds of Yatzee. Because nothing beats togetherness.
About Samantha Woodruff
Samantha Woodruff holds a BA from Wesleyan University and an MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business. She spent most of her career at Viacom’s MTV Networks, where she oversaw Strategy, Business Development and Consumer Research for Nickelodeon and a host of other brands. After becoming a mom and moving to the suburbs of Manhattan, Sam left corporate America and made being a mom to her 8 and 10 year old kids her full-time job. In her free moments, Sam teaches yoga and takes classes at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence. She is working on her first novel and writing essays that take a lighter look at the life of a former type-A executive turned suburban mom. Her work has been featured in Read650 and she contributes a column, Seriously, Sam? to Suburbs 101.
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