On Gathering

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Our house was full this past weekend, our kitchen swelling to the brim with bodies and laughter and food, and our entire silverware supply completely used up for the first time in a long time. In an attempt to up our gathering game, I sent out a text early in the week to four families we’ve never brought together, inviting them to dinner. I casually mentioned it to Brett the day before–“So, forgot to tell you, a few people are coming to dinner tomorrow night”–yet he knows better and raised an eyebrow. “A few?” he asked, “like what do you mean by a few?”

“Like, you know–a few…21, 22 maybe?” I answer, as if I have no idea. “That’s with kids, of course. It will be fine, I’ve got everything under control.”

“Just promise me one thing,” he requested. “An hour before everyone gets here, please don’t–”

“Turn into a raging bitch?” I finished for him, laughing. Because I know myself well and have far too many times left things to the last minute when entertaining and, twenty minutes before people arrived, legit snapped: “God, can’t you, like, empty the garbage or something? Why aren’t you helping me? CAN YOU GET THESE KIDS OUT OF THE KITCHEN, CAN’T YOU SEE I’M FLIPPING OUT HERE?!” It doesn’t help that he, on more than one occasion, has chosen “empty the refrigerator of every spoiled leftover container and stack it next to the sink” right before people arrive as his helpful contribution. However, I feel for him, I do.

“It’s totally low key, babe,” I assured him. “Don’t worry.”

It’s just that I’m craving gathering a lot lately. Perhaps it’s this middle place. Or fall. Or living hundreds of miles away from my family and calling home to hear they’re all together. Whatever it is, I think community is a critical tool for surviving the middle years, and it’s not going to foster itself.

As a kid growing up in the church, we called it fellowship. There wasn’t a week that went by that we weren’t gathered for some kind of holy fellowship–bible studies, potlucks, church events where parents huddled in living rooms drinking Faygo pop out of Solo cups while kids ran wild in basements or, in the good Midwest months, played Kick the Can outside. Speaking of church potlucks, can we tangent for a short moment here to pay homage to the lost love of mayonnaise in the cherished Dish to Pass? Our church kitchen refrigerators were mainly empty, give or take some leftover fermented grape juice from a few communions ago, but there was usually a wholesale-size jar of the holy ingredient to all church potluck meals–mayonnaise. Church gatherings were halls of fame for mayonnaise–cups of it stuffed into every dish-to-pass that lined the fellowship hall banquet tables–tuna noodle casserole, chicken & rice casserole, pasta salad, potato salad–even the weird jello salads on the dessert tables had mayonnaise in them. And there was always a giant vat of mac & cheese for the kids –generic, of course, its blandness only slightly jazzed with a few shakes of salt and some cut-up hot dogs. It probably had mayonnaise in it too. There is no doubt my aversion to mayonnaise has some roots that dig back many years.

We skipped the mayonnaise this weekend and opted for soups and cornbread but kept the “dish-to-pass” tradition because I’m learning that gathering with people we love happens more frequently and freely when I loosen up and let go of having to have everything perfect. Like maybe skip the fall-hued cloth napkins and orange garnishes on the glasses and instead aim simply for “I’m so happy you’re here; what can I pour you to drink?” Or, in the case of this past weekend when my friend pulled out the angel food cake she brought for the kids and asked if I had any little dessert plates, my lowered standard response: “Can’t we just lay it in the driveway and yell for the kids to grab a chunk and run?” Three kids in and I’m finally learning.

I do know that it felt so good to end a week that depleted me, filling myself back up with a simple scan of my kitchen and the love that filled it that night. And somewhere between lighting the last candle before the doorbell rang and clapping to the music from the dance party that erupted in the living room several hours later, I thought about how necessary this is in this stage of life. Before kids, “gathering” took up a sizable chunk of our life’s pie chart, and yet all we had to support each other on was where we were registering for our weddings and how to get our men to watch chick flicks with us. We gather less now–too busy, too tired, too stretched–and yet we’re in deep here, our stories, joys and challenges expanded into complicated webs that keep us up at night. The world is bigger, our worries heavier, and we need our people to soften the blow and remind us–in music, in candlelight, in Thursday morning brunches, in Friday night living room dances, in stories that make us cry and laugh and relate–we’re in it together.  

Want to up your gathering game? Bring your community together? Plan a Friday night dinner? A few things I’ve learned that help:

1. Be Spontaneous. Think of a few friends you’d like to have over, and send a text invite. Right now. “This Friday night free? Dinner at our house!” Don’t think about it too long or you’ll back out, waiting until you finally paint the dining room or clean the basement or have a week with nothing to do so you can plan something big and fancy to be remembered. Send the invite so the deal is sealed. You can go as casual as ordering pizza and pulling out a few decks of cards or pump up the ambiance for a more festive evening (see #2). Either way, it’s the company and the memory that matters. Besides, anything that didn’t get cleaned up before people arrive can always be tossed into a laundry basket and put in a closet to be sorted later. I mean, not that I’ve done that, but I know people who have. :o)

2. A Good Dinner Playlist and Candles are Magic. I don’t care if you’re in a crappy apartment scooping take-out pho onto paper plates, you can create a homey atmosphere and a hospitable vibe if you dim your damn lights, put some candles out and turn on appropriate dinner music. Pandora stations we love for dinner guests: Madeleine Peyroux, Nat King Cole, Amos Lee, Diana Krall, Leon Bridges, Norah Jones or for more folksy tunes, Priscilla Ahn, Louden Wainwright or Brandi Carlile.

3. Shell Out Some of the Work...especially if you have kids and having people over is a bit intimidating. An invite alone and offering your space for a fun evening is a treat in itself for your guests. Don’t feel bad to ask your friend to bring that great salad she makes or a dessert for the kids or a yummy appetizer. If your budget is tight and it keeps you from entertaining, consider asking everyone to bring a bottle of wine to share or taking turns to host a meal.

4. Start Easy. Planning a full dinner with complimenting sides and different cook times can be daunting. The easiest thing to make that serves a lot of people and doesn’t create a lot of mess? A big pot of soup or chili with salad and bread (throw it in the crock pot to make it even easier!).  You could always use up that mayonnaise and go the church potluck casserole route, of course.

5. Feed the Kids First. The best thing that worked last weekend? Let the kids eat first. I baked a pan of ziti for the kids, and we shelled out their food and let them enjoy their own pow-wow at the table while we sipped drinks and ate appetizers. When they finished, they all headed outside to play while we cleared out their space and reclaimed it for–gasp–a dinner where we could hear ourselves speak!

6. Spice up the Guest List. Instead of bringing together the same people every time, branch out. Try inviting some new people you’d like to get to know more or join two circles you think would get along great. I love to invite a “buffer” when doing this–someone who you know is great at talking to everyone and bridging the gap with good conversation.

6. Let Go of Control. You brought everyone together, now relax and have fun. You know where I always have a hard time with this? The guys. Guys don’t always jump into conversations and become friends as easy as girls do, so sometimes I babysit the situation too much. Is Brett having fun? Is so-and-so’s husband fitting in? Is it too quiet over there? Here’s what I’ve figured out: they’re grown-ass men, they can figure it out themselves. Just because they aren’t pulling their phones out to schedule pedicures together next week doesn’t mean they aren’t enjoying each other’s company.

Want some inspiration? Check out Jenny Rosenstrach’s new life/cookbook How to Celebrate Everything, full of recipes and rituals to help savor these quickly passing days. I love this quote from hers on the inspiration behind her book, referring to worrying about her kids as they are growing:  “Do they feel connected to their family? Their community? Am I running out of time to figure all this out? …So here is the strategy I’ve come up with and wrapped up between two covers and bound with a Liberty-cotton flowery spine: Savor Family Rituals. Optimize Family Holidays. Celebrate Everything. And whenever possible, do all this with food, just to be sure people show up.”

Your Father’s Story

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Through blogging, I’ve been introduced to some fabulous brands and companies that have become family favorites and places we turn to for holidays and gifts. I’m excited to have discovered a new one that brings together three things I hold dear–family, heritage and stories–and I’m thrilled to share them with you today. This Father’s Day post is sponsored by StoryWorth. If you’re still looking for that perfect something to give your dad this weekend, there’s an offer for the most meaningful gift at the end of this post. 

Last Father’s Day, I asked my dad if he’d be interested in writing a guest post for Father’s Day. “Tell a story about your dad,” was the simple prompt I offered, but in no way was I prepared for the story he’d tell, the mystery of a complicated love story between father and son I had never fully understood as his daughter. I remember the night he e-mailed it to me–how he called to tell me he had sent it, said he was going to bed and offered to fix anything I wanted edited in the morning. And late that night, I read it–and cried, hearing for the first time so many stories I had never known. How my grandpa hugged my dad when he helped him with his neck ties, how he didn’t come to my dad’s theater shows, how my dad pretended it didn’t bother him that he wasn’t there. And I finally learned something I had always wondered–something we could never quite get to in face-to-face conversations. I learned that his father’s love, like so many others, was complicated but deeply understood–rooted in story after story, from tucking money in kitchen cupboards when he knew my dad was barely scrimping by, to loudly cheering from the cross country field even when he was the last to finish.

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It is these stories that keep my grandpa alive and near to me–and the telling of these stories that connect him to my children, their future children and the heritage of who we are as a family. The older I get, the more I yearn for these stories for more intimate relationships with those I love most. It’s why I keep a box of table topics in our kitchen and make everyone go around and answer story-telling questions for holiday dinners. Who impacted you most growing up? Tell us a time you failed and learned something from it. And you know what I’m learning? More about our family than I could have ever learned in day to day conversation.

I’ve especially loved how these stories have made me learn about and love Brett’s side of the family lately as I find myself collecting more stories my father-in-law shares, better appreciating my husband’s heritage and the family name I now carry. One of my favorite stories emerged this past Christmas when I asked everyone to go around and share their most favorite holiday memory from when they were a child. Had the story prompt not been given, I don’t know I would have ever learned about the magical night Brett’s dad remembers from years ago when he stayed with his Grandpa Omar for an evening in the middle of winter. He recalls long after the moon had risen and the grand kids were headed for bed, his strong quiet grandpa peeked out the window and called to his wife–“Lucille, get them ready,” before slipping out the door. The night was cold and black and silent, and he didn’t know what was going on, but he bundled up as his grandma instructed.

“When we headed outside, we saw it had been snowing for hours,” Brett’s dad remembers. “He had hitched a sleigh to the horse was waiting for us. We all climbed in and huddled together, and he took us on the most beautiful moonlit sleigh ride through the snow.” Brett’s dad is a great storyteller, and he recalls every detail as if it happened yesterday–how dark the sky was, how bright the stars twinkled, how cold the night felt, and how his grandpa–like always–didn’t say much but loved through action.

“And the snow–” he recalls. “There was so much snow, I’ll never forget it.”

I got a little teary as he retold the story. All these years, all this time, and he still remembers it like it was yesterday. The story is part of him, passed down to us, and coincidentally about the man whose name my son now carries.

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Our stories make us known to those we love, and when we know our people well, we can love them better. Not only that, research shows the more you know about your family’s history, the more sense of control you have over your life. From a favorite article about family stories I read a few years ago in the New York Times: “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”

So here comes the treasure hunt. How do we uncover these stories? How do we find out all the things we never knew we wanted to know about our parents and grandparents, and preserve and pass these stories on?

I love StoryWorth’s answer to these questions: make it easy for them.

What is StoryWorth? StoryWorth is a service that provides a selection of questions you can choose from–questions such as”What simple pleasures of life do you truly enjoy?”, “What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?” or “Who are your role models and heroes?”–questions that beg for hidden stories. Each week StoryWorth emails the questions to your dad (or grandpa or whomever you choose as a recipient), and when your loved one replies (written or recorded), his answers are shared with you. After a year, all of his stories are bound in a beautiful keepsake book. And you get to know your father better. 

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StoryWorth is a perfect meaningful gift for Father’s Day, one you can purchase last minute and still have it be personal and special. And this Father’s Day, StoryWorth is offering one year of service of collecting your dad’s stories along with a hardcover book for $59 ($20 off original $79). Customize your gift invite today and StoryWorth will email your dad on Father’s Day explaining how to get started with your meaningful gift.

And let’s face it–everyone loves a gift that benefits the giver too. Your father or grandfather will love the invitation to tell his stories, but you get the gift of hearing them. And that’s a gift that lasts forever.

The UItimate Summer Family Movie List

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Three days into summer break and I’m all, “Wait, why was this cool again?”

Can we swim? Can you make me a sandwich? I’m thirsty. Can you tie this? Can you fix this? I’m hungry. Sophie peed. I need a towel. I need a cup. I need a napkin. I’m bored. 

I forgot how quickly it escalates.

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I’m happy to report summer enthusiasm still measures in the upper quartile though. I figured we simply could not move forward with summer festivities though without a good list of summer family movies, and Friday’s a perfectly good day to get it done. One of my favorite summer rituals is watching movies when we’re trapped in the cabin on a rainy day up north, and up there we do it old school style–not pulled from Netflix or streamed from Amazon, but…wait for it…we insert a DVD into a player. Gasp. And half the fun is rifling through the stack of DVDS–summer favorites that have been collected for rainy days and quiet nights.

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With no further ado…

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And why yes, I do have a thing for old Lindsay Lohan movies.

Wanna make your summer movie night even better? Try these:

1. Move all the furniture in the family room and throw pillows, couch cushions and sleeping bags on the floor. Make a movie fort.
2. Lead up to movie night. Make “Movie Night” flyers and hang them around the house before the event and pass out homemade tickets (kids love these jobs!)
3. Make individual popcorn bags (cute little red and white stripe bags seen in above photo, perfectly sized for toddler portions, available in the dollar section at Target currently)
4. Pajama prerequisite.
5. Make S’mores sundaes. Chocolate ice cream, drizzled with chocolate sauce, sprinkled with graham cracker crumbs and those freeze-dried marshmallows (you can buy them in the hot cocoa aisle).

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6. Drag movie setup outside, hang twinkle lights, invite neighbors and throw a big outdoor movie party. This one’s a lot, I know. So, also okay if you think about it, pretend you did it and then don’t.

Did I miss an amazing summer movie on my list? Have a summer movie ritual that we just have to try? Tell me, tell me!