personal essay

What My Parents Really Meant When They Said “Just Bring What You Can”

published Feb 21, 2020
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Any time my parents opened our home to host a get-together people came in droves. Attending one of my parents’ gatherings was like stumbling into the immediate intimacy of a family reunion. Outpourings of generosity weren’t reserved for blood relatives only, they were for everyone: coworkers, church friends, even neighbors ambling to their mailboxes in our suburban cul-de-sac outside of Houston, Texas were welcome to join the festivities. With each new invitation my parents would slip in a phrase that would eventually change the way I approached entertaining and community altogether: “Don’t worry; Just bring what you can.” 

My parents weren’t wealthy by any means, but after years of frugality and hard work to build their insurance business up from nothing, it finally bore fruit. So when my parents could pay forward the generosity they’d received from others after spending years scraping by, they didn’t hesitate. They stocked our fridge, cranked the oven, and ushered people in with open arms.

My dad was the first to meet guests as they arrived. He’d swoop in from dumping bags of ice into a cooler or finishing some last-minute chore. With his toothy smile on full display, he’d dap, handshake, and bear hug accordingly before instructing the group of his frat brothers, my mom’s Bible study friends, and neighbors on where to put their shoes and when the food would be ready. Any time a new guest arrived he’d boom an enthusiastic greeting, his joy echoing through our home like thunder. I’d seen the way my dad listened to people at the parties: shoulders square to the person, eyes focused, eyebrows raised in anticipation of  a story’s soon-to-come twist. It made people feel like they just might be the most interesting person in the world as long as they were telling their story. I stood at the sink trying to emulate his stance, forcing my shoulders back from their typical hunching, and lifting my gaze from the ground.

Meanwhile, my mom would be consumed with arranging spreads of casseroles, vegetable platters, and chili cheese dip on whatever spare counter space was available. Normally, she wasn’t particularly passionate about playing kitchen Tetris with a casserole dish of ziti, but when company showed up so did the full potential of her organizational and hosting skills.  

She moved efficiently, while holding conversations with whoever wandered into the kitchen lured by the smell of baked pasta crowned with melty cheese. While all of this happened, I’d play “seven-year-old sous chef,” lingering a few paces behind her to clear out dirty dishes from her wake or reminding her to check on whatever was coming out of the oven next. I’d loved playing the role of cooking partner, but I’d always felt a growing sense of dread as the dishes stacked, knowing I’d be stuck scrubbing plates with my mom for hours.

If my parents couldn’t be with the families they longed for, they could cultivate communities so loving and caring that they’d become family.

Once all of the food was taken care of, she’d pour a glass of wine and take a tour of the house to greet anyone she hadn’t yet seen. She’d flow seamlessly between groups, introducing this person to so-and-so, then telling a quick story that always inspired a round of earnest laughter before reminding people to eat and drink because we had plenty. It was an unpracticed dance that dazzled me, an energetic, but shy kid who clammed up under the slightest hint of social pressure while my parents and older siblings shone in the spotlight.

While my parents spent the rest of the night following their unspoken choreography, deciphering when a lull in the chatter was necessary and when to reinvigorate a dwindling conversation, I was forcing myself further out of my comfort zones to be even remotely like my parents. I lingered in conversations and allowed myself to laugh heartily, trying not to worry about being too loud. But the social effort wore on me. How could my parents operate so effortlessly?

It wasn’t until I’d finally gotten fed up with the post-party chores that I asked my mom why we had to do all the work when they were coming over to our house. I was fine with the joviality, just annoyed with the aftermath. She laughed. “This is what family should do,” she said. “Whether you have everything or nothing at all, family should always be there to offer what they can, to show up regardless, however they can. Dad and I didn’t always have that. We had parents who worked long and hard to provide for us, but at the cost of time. So, we want you to see what it looks like for families to be together, to be joyful, and surrounded with people we love and who love you.”

For my parents, entertaining was the opportunity to create lasting bonds that extended beyond blood — a longing shaped by numerous moves demanding they leave their home and community behind. If my parents couldn’t be with the families they longed for, they could cultivate communities so loving and caring that they’d become family. When grief threatened to swallow my dad’s best friend after a shocking divorce, my parents opened their doors, breaking out special-occasion cigars and a bottle of Hennessy. When my aunt watched the police put her son in handcuffs for a petty crime, she and my mom cooked feverishly for days, refusing to relent until the tears stopped. My parents invited friends over for casual weeknight potlucks with two objectives in mind: to deepen their roots in their new home and to care for friends going through hard times or financial troubles.

The reality was that my parents were two people far from their childhood homes, settling down in suburban Houston after a decade of constantly moving further and further from their families. It was isolating for our whole family. I saw it in the way my mother would pause while folding laundry, pining for her childhood backyard in Pennsylvania lined with lilac bushes that perfumed the sheets hanging on clotheslines. I saw it in the deep creases that only formed around my dad’s eyes during phone calls with his childhood best friends. It was when they were navigating this isolation that the realities of their partnership truly rose to the surface. They were true companions in their solitude, bearing the weight of their loneliness separately and together. In embracing their own pains, they found ways to better accommodate the discomfort present in others.

 Rather than spiral, my parents did the Blackest thing they could. They looked at their path of migration and created a community wherever they were, carrying with them all of the family they’d established until then. If they couldn’t return to the homes or the friends they’d left behind, they’d commit themselves to making a home and friends where they were. They gave themselves room to not have it all figured out. They just needed to be honest and present. And that’s all they wanted of anyone who joined their patchwork family. I committed to learning how to do the same.

More than a decade and a half later, I’ve endured migrations of my own, leaving the warmth and comfort of years’-worth of community-building in Houston for Chicago, San Francisco, D.C., and finally New York. And in each place, I’ve found myself falling back on my parents’ entertaining philosophies while trying to establish myself and a community all my own. 

Don’t worry; Just bring what you can. 

It’s why I find myself refusing to show up empty handed anytime a friend invites me over for any type of gathering, from casual Netflix and pizza nights to multi-course dinner parties on vintage china. It’s why I find myself intently insisting that friends still join for dinners on my dime when they don’t “have it.” It’s why I throw my door open, encouraging people to bring whoever. “Seriously, if I’m eating we’re all eating,” I’ll double down.  

Through all these moments, I finally understand just how intentional entertaining can be. It is a demonstration of generosity and love at its most pragmatic. It’s the willingness to open your door and offer a plate — whether it’s to the 50 people filing into my home in Texas or three of my closest friends laughing with abandon in my cozy Brooklyn apartment. 

Don’t worry; Just bring what you can. They are the simple instructions on how to create and savor moments of joy even in the midst of hardship. Open doors, and hands that bring what they can, do just that. 

Story edited by Hali Bey Ramdene. She is the founder of StudioHalibey, a company that helps create work that puts curiosity and collaboration at the center of what we do. Follow her @halibey.