It doesn't happen every year, but there's been a number of times in the past two decades when our family gets a surprise guest in the house during the holidays. One year, a freak snowstorm stranded my daughter's college roommate, Jo, with us--all flights were canceled, but Jo and Mary were able to make the white-knuckled, two-hour drive from the University to our house. Another time my wife brought home a total stranger that she had befriended doing volunteer work at the soup kitchen; a nice guy named Ray, who had fallen on hard times and was familyless for Christmas. And five years ago, we had my old college friend Chuck stay with us for Christmas and through New Year's--he had recently lost his wife and was feeling a little unmoored and my wife insisted that we open our doors to him.
Every time the experiences have been enriching for us; after an initial bit of awkwardness, my family does a great job of rallying together and making our guests feel at home, and feel like they belonged. Christmas is never a time to be alone and I've always been proud that my family was able to look at the bigger picture, no matter how strange it might seem to have non-family members sitting around the big Christmas tree. And it also makes the holiday a little more, I don't know, formal. Which appeals to an old guy like me.
The hardest part is convincing our guests that they're not putting us out. My buddy Chuck is a fiercely proud man and it took some major negotiating to get him to stay; at one point my wife, who can be as stubborn as an English bulldog, demanded that he give her his car keys. It's an image I'll always carry with me: she just stood there, stock still, in the kitchen, with her hand out and her jaw set, and gradually Chuck's protestations began to trail off and he sort of sheepishly handed her the keys. A few days after New Year's, he told my wife that he thought he was ready for his car keys again, and when she gave them to him he gave her a huge bear hug. I've known the guy for forty years and he's never once hugged me. Go figure.
So it's always a good thing, having these impromptu vacationers staying, and I think my family actually gets a little disappointed when it's just us. Having a guest in the house sort of forces everybody to be on their best behavior, and that seems to make things easier; my family gets along pretty well but we do tend to bicker now and then, and having a third party tends to smooth the waters. And our guests always add something surprising to the mix; I'll never forget when Ray, in lieu of a present, read a poem to the family that he had written on Christmas Eve. It was a vivid and lyrical tribute to Greenwich Village, where Ray grew up, and the amazing and oddball characters he had once associated with. Some of the images were quite striking; it was obvious that Ray had some true artistry. It reminded me, for the millionth time, that people are always so much more complex and fascinating than you initially think.
This year we had another guest who stayed over Christmas; my son's best friend from high school, Harry. He's going through an out-of-nowhere divorce from his wife and didn't have anywhere else to go; his folks have been gone for some time and he's an only child, so most of his previous Christmases were with his in-laws. When my son Joe found out, he immediately called him up and virtually dragged him over for the holiday. And I'm glad he did, though it was a little odd for me--I guess I had a hard time believing that Harry, who was always such a goofball and a live wire, would go through something that could knock the humor straight out of him. Some guys you just don't want to see get sad.
But you know, he recovered well when he was here. He always liked being around my wife and me, and I know he probably had a little crush on my daughter, as well. Plus he practically grew up in our house, so I know he felt comfortable, and he and Joe have about a billion little inside jokes that they've been accumulating over the years and both seemed determined to use every single one over the holiday. So while I could tell he was feeling pretty low at the start, it was great to see him bounce back. I guess I really didn't realize how attached I had gotten to Harry. It's odd, when your kids grow up, how some of their friends become so important to you. You love them because your kids do, initially, but then you learn to love them for themselves. Seeing Harry smile again made this holiday season one of the best for everybody in our house.
Until next time,