The storm starts on a calm day but the signs are there that something is coming. The kids are restless, the dog quiet, and my wife and I scurry about battening down the hatches. It's Christmas Eve and it is our year to host. And, like the change of the wind before a storm, the doorbell rings and it begins. The kids look up from their phones, the dog does a short bark and I look at my wife and ask “are you ready for the Van Osdels?” She smiles and nods and I answer the door.
The first wave is small. UB1, his wife, 2 grown children, 1 son-in-law and 1 sweet-as-pie granddaughter. UB1 is my older brother. All three of us Van Osdel boys' names begin with B, so the nieces have dubbed us UB1, UB2 and UB3 - a little Uncle Buck reference for John Hughes and 80s movies fans. UB1 is always the first wave, except for the year nephew Jeremy got the time wrong and was first through the door. UB1 likes to arrive early, celebrate and leave early.
The next wave of the storm is large and comes hard with presents that are so numerus they don’t fit under the tree and begin to pile up and cover the bottom of the tree. Crockpots appear at such an alarming rate that I need to find a power strip to accommodate them all. Boxes of cookies, plates of appetizers, cases of beer and bottles of wine accumulate. When the storm breaks, briefly, there are 3 sisters, 3 UB’s, 3 spouses, 7 nephews, 6 nieces, 7 spouses / boyfriends of nephews and nieces and 7 great nieces and nephews. All together, 39 descendants of Bennett and Elene Van Osdel. Mom and Dad would have loved to see them all together but I guess they probably can.
There is a pause in the storm as everyone shuffles to find their spot - a little light through the clouds. My son and the early-college-late-high-school generation of kids go to the basement to watch “Christmas Vacation” or play the PS4. The aunts and wives play musical crockpots and cookie plates as they shuffle items on the island and counters in an effort to find the best way to serve the food. They ask my wife how they can help. And just when it seems the storm has subsided, it comes again.
A niece yells “UB2 where are the games?” Pictionary, Jenga, Apples to Apples and whatever the latest Target store game craze is break out at the island and the ottoman and the dinner table with the wine, beer, meatballs and little smokes all swirling in a mass of holiday spirit. I see my wife has given up on the crockpot-watching and joined in on the games. I grab a nephew, UB1, and UB3 and we head to the basement for pinochle. I manage to play half a game of cards before I am needed in the kitchen. A nephew takes my spot until I can return from averting a corkscrew crisis. Just as we are beginning to start game two, my daughter says “Dad, Mom wants to know when we should eat”. If the pinochle game was the eye of the hurricane, it has just passed over us and we are back in the storm. The wives and aunts jump from the games and begin shuffling plates, bowls and spoons from one end of the island to the other. My wife begins to fill every glass we own with ice and I say, “little guys first” which doesn’t truly mean the littles ones 5 years and under, it means the 15-18 year olds.
As the food line forms and people go through there is a strange quiet as people are busy eating. And there are people eating everywhere. We had set up enough tables and chairs but some are in the family room down stairs. No one seems to want to venture that far from the food so I suggest the young ones go to the basement. A few do, but mostly people just eat where they are - on chairs at the island pushing the crock pots to the side to make room, at the desk, on living room chairs. Or they stand. It doesn’t seem to matter. We all want to be close to the food, and to one another. I clear the line, just in time for the young ones to begin the second round, and find a corner by my sisters and we chat. We all do in our own little dining groups. You would think this would be loud, like thunder overhead, but the din and chatter of Christmas supper is more soothing, like thunder in the distance. Then, CRASH. A plate hits the floor.
After supper, a quick clean-up and a little more gaming and Christmas Vacation or Christmas Story appears on the upstairs TV again. The storm has subsided to a few raindrops on the window pane. One of the great-nephews is asleep on his grandma’s lap and one is playing with my son Sam’s old toys. Sam is enjoying this as much as the toddler. One is asleep between pillows on our bed and the great-nieces play games with grandmas and great-aunts or second cousins as they enjoy the lull in the storm. The millennials are quietly playing a game in the dining room and my daughter is on her phone texting the play by play of the night to her boyfriend. A loud roar, like thunder, comes from the kitchen as a story is told of Christmas gone by. Nora the dog is sleeping under the table, near my wife’s feet. Sam looks up, not to me but just in general, and says “when are we opening presents?” The storm surge begins and Nora runs for cover under the hutch.
Babies are roused, or at least brought to the living room. The cousins who are still in high school - fewer every year - hand out the presents and we begin to open in oldest-then-youngest, in alternating order. I try to keep track and get at least one niece's or spouse's age wrong, but we make it through and everyone is happy with their gift, or at least pretends to be. Then, as quickly as it began, the storm has passed. Without a word, people begin to load up and leave. UB1 and his family go first, then the aunts and their kids and grandkids. In-laws and boyfriends are next until I’m at the top of the stairs telling UB3 and his family “Merry Christmas” and “see you soon.”
Surprisingly, for a storm this size, the house is in pretty good shape. A little clutter but not bad. I can't remember when my wife, sisters and sisters-in-law washed the crock pots, but they did. I even did dishes and help with clean up, but somehow never saw a crockpot hit the sink. My wife and I and our kids sit on the coach with Nora the dog and sigh. My wife says “that was fun.” Sam says, “it went so quick.” Abby laughs at something her boyfriend texted and we all giggle at that. There is a post-storm haze in the air. The holiday spirit lingers in the house. I am fairly certain it’s my mom, dad, uncles, aunts, grandparents and anyone that ever hosted or attended a Van Osdel or Petersen Christmas. It’s good to know they all remembered to come for Christmas. The door bell rings. Nora barks. Hmm. Who forgot what?