Janet Fricke Gilbert


Holiday Open House: Meet the Strangers in the Family


A little more than a decade ago, the Internet was still a new frontier for my parents’ generation. My mother wasted no time exploring, forwarding my siblings and me urgent warnings about LSD-laced postage stamp adhesives, unexpected uses for WD-40, and Powerpoint presentations that attempted to explain God with disturbing close-ups of insects set to Abba’s “Chiquitita.” My mother-in-law took an equally fascinating yet decidedly more analytical approach to her information-highway roamings, researching genealogy records to find some long lost relatives in, of all places, Maryland.

My husband and I found both of these cyber-ventures pretty innocuous — in fact, we felt strangely proud that our moms were embracing new technology and using it as a way to connect our families.

So travel back with me to the holiday season of 2000, the year I temporarily lost touch with reality, the year I spritzed a little W-D 40 on my Christmas butter cookies to give them a touch of gloss, the year I hosted an open house for utter strangers.

My three children were at the perfect Christmas chaos ages — six, 10 and 12. I ran my own freelance advertising business, but I was also the orchestrator of the season’s magic — the shopper of sales, the wrapper of gifts, the baker of treats. The applauder of “Jingle Bells” played incessantly and screechily on a clarinet, the inserter of pretzel sticks into mini-marshmallows for clever reindeer snacks, the late-night drinker of wine and signer of cards with the clever, authentically illegible message, “Hoke your holiday season is joinfuk.” 

My in-laws had decided to risk Christmas with us that year, so our family was also trying to plan a few fun local outings, such as freezing our collective tochises at Baltimore Zoo Lights, spending a few hours in the dim, tourist-packed aquarium trying not to lose our children, and taking the traditional plodding drive through Hampden to see the lights. 

My husband and I were both on the phone when we heard the news.

My mother-in-law was describing the latest relative she had excavated in Baltimore County —  interesting this person was! She had exchanged a number of emails with the effervescent Paula. Paula might even be…gay! This was fascinating to my mother-in-law, who did not have many gay friends out there in the Midwest, or at least many gay friends who had come out out there in the Midwest. And guess what? Paula and her friend Joan mentioned the possibility of getting together with them while they were in Maryland visiting us!

“Sounds great!” we chimed. As long as we didn’t have to join them.

My mother-in-law went on. Evidently, Paula expressed an interest in meeting the other long-lost relatives my mother-in-law had unearthed and connected via email: Frank and Helen, Maury and Phyllis, and Ed and Janene and their 20-something son Carl. Carl, my mother-in-law calculated, was likely her third cousin, twice removed.  And wait, there was someone else, how could she forget Great Uncle Verne?


“I told you about him last week,” my mother-in-law admonished. Verne, the historian who had several PhDs! More than one PhD is right up there with being gay in the interesting department, apparently.

She did a brief recap. We listened politely but not attentively — after all, these remote relatives didn’t concern us. We would probably never have occasion to meet them. 

As we look back, neither of us is confident that either truly heard what she said next. All we knew for sure is that when we hung up the phone, neither of us had done anything to stop it. It was a holiday shock — like a fruitcake to the head.

“I hope you don’t mind — I invited them all to a holiday open house. At your house, the day after we fly in. Three to six on Sunday.”

She was sure it wouldn’t be too much trouble. She would send a ham. 

Let me just state outright that I have never liked open houses. Not for real estate sales, and not for holidays. It seems to me like a completely unfocused gathering — the concept basically being, “Hey, show up if you feel like it, whenever you can, for a little while, eat something unsubstantial while you stand up and critique my decor. Bring the kids! They can lick the cheese cubes and put them back on the tray.”

Because it was the holiday season, however, I embraced the Catholic mantra my mother would mutter whenever we complained as children: “Offer it up.” This means: Make a sacrifice silently for your future salvation and it will ease the pain of the present. Or, maybe, just take your attitude out of this room, right this minute.

So, I started making cheesy crab meat hors d’oeuvres on buttered English muffin quarters in the morning and Aunt Rose’s bleu cheese ball after lunch and vidalia onion dip before the carpool and after dinner — Hanky Panks (ground beef, sausage and seasonings mixed with Velveeta, spread on party rye), which are the most visually disgusting appetizers on the planet and yet they freeze well. Also, men love them. 

Meanwhile, my children, who were used to my reading A.A. Milne’s “King John’s Christmas” to them, or listening to side one of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” on a random December afternoon, were increasingly unamazed and unimpressed by the Christmas machine I had become in anticipation of the open house. I was the Christmas Crankster, demanding naps long outgrown and the Brio train put away neatly in its keeper every night, moving from one task to another with the grace and style of the Grinch.

As the open house drew near, I joked with my friends, entreating them to show up at my party so I could see at least a few familiar faces. This sarcastic comment did serve, however, to remind me to make little Martha Stewart holly-and-mistletoe name tags for each new family member on my computer greeting card program. I was out of control. 

Not soon enough, the fateful Sunday came. True to her word, my mother-in-law had sent the ham, and she sprang into action the moment she got off the plane, folding napkins and setting out serving utensils and platters. It was as if she were having second thoughts. I suddenly felt compassionate, or perhaps guilty for all the grudging preparations I had made. Guilt and compassion are related, actually, but that is another essay. 

My father-in-law stocked the bar. My husband tried to make me laugh. My children put on their color-coordinated suburban Christmas outfits.

The doorbell rang. And here is the thing about me: I truly know no strangers. It is a direct genetic gift from my Irish grandfather, who could give impromptu speeches that made people laugh and cry, and ultimately turn over all their business to the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency on Madison Avenue. 

What a lovely home,” said Paula, as she and Joan took their coats off in the foyer. 

“Thank you! I just spent 50 bucks redoing the whole downstairs in ‘Early American Garage Sale,'” I said. They paused, not sure if it was okay to laugh, because a quick glance into the family room revealed my statement to be 100 percent true.

And this awkwardness might have continued — in fact it would have been completely understandable in a gathering of strangers — but heck, these strangers were family. I laughed, and they joined in.

“We just did our dining room in particle board,” Joan deadpanned.

“What can we do to help?” Paula asked. I handed her a tray of crab puffs.

Cut to the end of the event: I’d had a wonderful time.

Sure, I did decline the suggested afternoon jaunt to the Woodstock cemetery suggested by Verne to find a few grave sites of deceased relatives, but my children went along because it seemed a sort of festive Halloween-like thing to do at Christmas. I spent the afternoon telling entertaining stories and making sure everyone was having as good a time as I was. When the open house was over, I hugged everyone warmly and thanked them for coming.

And later that night, as I lay in bed next to my husband, I cried for my mother-in law and the family that she never really had: the father who had died when she was a child, the remote mother who sat on a porch and drank too many rum-and-limeades. The feelings of abandonment that she must have harbored all these years that resulted, strangely and beautifully, in the simple truth that you can never have too much family at Christmas.


Janet Gilbert is a freelance writer who works in Baltimore and lives in Woodstock. Visit her website for the holiday open house recipes!