Of the hundreds of columns I’ve written over the past 12 years for various local papers, this is one people still ask me about, so I’m sending it along again this Christmas. It was first published in the old Ledger in 1998.
The grandchildren mentioned in the story are nearly all adults now. One teaches school in inner-city Washington D.C., one is just graduating from Miami of Ohio, one is a college junior heading off for Christmas in Taiwan and Japan with his girlfriend, and the youngest, who was 4 when this was originally written has just been offered a modeling contract.
They and their parents will converge on our house this weekend, and our somewhat larger, more modern kitchen. We’ll try to make it just as nice . . . but the kitchen is probably too big.
And the grandparents? They can't take the cold anymore. They're already in Florida.
At Christmas each year 18 of us - 11 adults and 7 children, converge on a big old house in Bluffton with large rooms, tall ceilings and lots of bedrooms. The kitchen there is hopelessly small - perhaps eight by eight with a 12-foot ceiling, as if it were built for incredibly skinny, tall people. Along with the cabinets, stove, sink and refrigerator are three doorways and a little antique table that sits in the middle, leaving a square, narrow path for cooking and socializing.
We like to complain about that kitchen, but quiet enough so the grandparents don’t hear.
There are rooms in that house with comfortable chairs, places to sit and talk, yet, more times than not, complaints aside, we huddle in that tiny kitchen, drawn by nature like bugs to a back porch light. If you want a Coke or milk, either someone must move or you have to crack the refrigerator door just enough to stretch your arm in. If you want to open a cabinet, microwave, stove or rinse a glass in the sink, somebody . . . or somebodies, must move. Still we stay and gab.
It is most like this in late afternoon. There is a roast packed with spices sizzling in the oven, things steaming on the stove and 8 or 10 of us wedged in there elbow to elbow, nibbling on nuts and chips, each of us with a beer or martini. Children push their way through the legs, looking for a mother or father or cookie or cracker, or they push on to the back room where pies and Christmas cookies sit on the washer and dryer, waiting for desert.
There were years when our babies were breast-fed and burped and cradled to sleep in this crowded, hot, tiny kitchen filled with the smells of pine needles, coffee, leg of lamb and boiling potatoes, were middle-aged brothers and sisters catch up on another intervening year. We always hoped and prayed the babies would sleep through dinner. But I think our “baby” years are behinds us all and a couple of those babies who once fell asleep over their mother’s shoulder beside the warm stove are nearly as tall as the shortest of their aunts.
There is something about that cramped, cozy space, something completely at odds with the modern notion of what a kitchen must be like in a new house. There is little counter space, no dishwasher or trash compactor, no commercial-sized stove or water and ice in the frig door. It is a remarkably impractical kitchen. Thumb through an issue of Martha Stewart magazine or watch a few episodes of Hometime or This Old House - each make it clear that such a kitchen could be best helped with a stick of dynamite.
We like to complain about that tiny kitchen. My wife even rearranged the space a bit this past Thanksgiving, but there’s not a lot you can do with it without a sledgehammer. Still I wonder, would we be drawn there the same if it were a kitchen worthy of praise from Martha Stewart or Architectural Digest? I doubt it. More space, more burners, better lighting and comfy bar stools could not make us enjoy each other’s company more or make the food taste better. If it were large and spacious, if it were the “entertaining/performance space” that architects go on about on This Old House, would we be drawn there the same? I doubt it.
There’s something about close quarters that can free people’s tongues in the nicest way. You can’t design that into a modern kitchen without breaking all the rules.
Everyone here is successful. All are well-educated college graduates who have traveled abroad. One family has been living abroad for years while another comes from Washington where the father has tried cases before the Supreme Court. From Cleveland another shepherds ads we have all seen on TV and another couple helps keep 2 Indianapolis advertising firms successful. One has published a book. Everyone here has a finer kitchen in their own homes. But I would guess none of us have had as many loving, memorable moments in our own kitchens as have been had over the Christmases we’ve tolerated, or perhaps reveled in the cramped space and one another’s company in that tiny kitchen.
It makes me wonder about the things we think we need and work so hard to get, especially in this season so over-inflated with consuming and having. The pleasures of Christmas in that tiny kitchen contradict the rest of the year we spend working so hard to buy comfort for ourselves.