I have spent probably 17 of the last 20 Christmas nights sleeping in a too-small bed in a strange room, going to sleep to the bells of St. William ringing down on a modest two-story house on the West Side of Cincinnati. It is my in-laws’ house, the house where Mary Jo grew up, the place where her parents raised four kids, hosted countless Italian get-togethers and cooked literally tons of pasta. It is where Luke’s Nonna and Nonno still live.
It is my home for the Christmas holiday.
Sleeping in someone else’s home, no matter how often you do it or how old you are or who owns the house, is awkward. There’s no getting around it. You don’t want to make a mess or make too much noise. (Nothing is as loud as a cough in the middle of the night in someone else’s house.) You don’t want to leave your shoes all over the place. You don’t know where to put your coat.
You don’t want to go rummaging around cabinets for, say, a cereal bowl. But you don’t want to bother your hosts to grab you one, either. Not when they’re already paying for the cereal and the milk and those bananas they somehow learned you like.
You don’t want to get up too early and catch the homeowners walking around in their boxers — it’s happened, you know — but, then again, you don’t want to get up too late and confirm that, yes, their daughter married a lazy ass.
You don’t want to eat and run. But hanging around someone else’s house all day, just being in their personal space on their personal time … there’s an unspoken expiration time there, don’t you think?
You can stay as long as you want, they say. But do you want people staying at your house as long as they want?
Still, we do this because it’s Christmas and this is family. (The few times in the past 20 years that we didn’t spend Christmas Day in Cincinnati were when Luke was of prime Santa-lookout age. We wanted him to be home on Christmas Eve to hear Santa on the roof. In other near-prime years we opened presents before heading north, then came home to see what Santa had left while we were gone.)
I’m still not over the awkwardness of staying in someone’s home, but I know that house on Pleasure Drive intimately by now. I have walked the cool floors and climbed the steps hundreds of times. I know which light switches work which lamps. I can side-step creaky floorboards. I know where they keep the bananas.
I can point out, almost without looking, where the impossibly dorky school photos of my wife and of her brothers and sister hang, and where the black-and-white pictures of grandparents rest. I know the photos of family pets and of long-ago dinners by heart. In the little living room with the impossibly stuffed leather couch, above a long-dormant hi-fi player, framed 8x10s of the grandchildren — boys on one side, girls on the other — are proudly displayed.
(I say I can show this to you almost without looking because, a few nights ago, getting up at 4 a.m. from that little bed, I walked face-first into a wall and practically woke the whole place up. It was like a nuclear cough. Luke, of course, heard nothing. I, sloshing to the bathroom full of red wine, was unharmed but embarrassed. And in my boxers, no less.)
At a small room off the kitchen, we eat dinners and munch on prosciutto and Asiago cheese, tearing away at freshly made bread and drinking unending bottles of home-made red wine. We talk at night — of life in Atlanta and Cincinnati, of growing older, of family, of Italy — while Mr. and Mrs. D relax feet-up in their recliners, an Italian game show on RAI in the background. The bells of St. William, the Catholic church just up the hill where we attend Christmas Mass, ring. And then, not too late, we climb the steps, hang a right past the mirror and the painting of Jesus at the top of the stairs and head to our bedroom at the end of the hall.
Luke, for several years, has slept in a small daybed against a wall in another room. That room features a cluttered desk where Mr. D pays the bills and a keyboard banged on by multiple grandchildren. And a lonely gold crucifix, over the bed.
This is not our home. It’s not as big, not as new, not as airy. (It doesn’t have a mortgage, either.)
But for Christmas, this is home. My wife is there and my son, and on Christmas Day we drive to someone’s else’s house — the day has now outgrown Pleasure Drive — for a celebration and a meal with Mr. and Mrs. D and all their kids, all the grandkids and all sorts of extended family. Games are played, presents are exchanged. Everyone gets caught up. The prosciutto is laid out. The bread and cheese are fresh. The pasta is perfect. And the wine always is plentiful.
There’s no place like it for the holidays.