The Family Ties That Bind Us at Holiday Time

(Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on 11/24/05)

As we enter the time of year that we as a culture set aside for celebration and spiritual reflection, we also enter a vast uncharted terrain that can cause anxiety among even the most psychologically sound.  That terrain is our family life.

I’m not referring to immediate family members living under our own roof.  I’m referring to that network of “others,” related to us by blood or marriage, who we don’t see or, truthfully, even think about much except for during holidays.

The family members we live with are the fulcrum around which most of our celebrations occur.  Those other family members though – parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, children of second cousins, ex-wives of stepparents – those are the ones who mix up the pot.  They often provide the color, imbalance, and fragility of human spirit that collides for a day or two with our own accepted notions of how things are.

I suspect that most tensions during the holiday season don’t arise from decision-making over which gifts to buy or what to serve for dinner, although I have known families who didn’t speak to one another for years because someone changed the recipe for Aunt Margaret’s traditional turkey dressing.  More likely, stress arises from the delicate and strategic family negotiations that would make even our nation’s top foreign policy advisers anxious.  Do we invite the weird uncle who clears his throat every thirty seconds and blinks uncontrollably?  Or the sister who has been married four times to four different unemployed losers and now has a bad attitude toward life that she takes out on anyone within earshot?  The cousin who recounts in graphic detail during dinner her many physical ailments?

There are also the negotiations as to where you go for the big holiday feasts. You secretly wish you could stay home for once, but that would cause tremors bigger than those centered at the San Andreas Fault.  Change is nearly impossible to initiate during the holiday season, and even more impossible to execute.

For example, a friend of mine once suggested to her husband’s adult siblings that they no longer buy gifts for one another, but rather just buy gifts for each other’s children.  This would eliminate the adults having to buy gifts for people they rarely ever saw, and would also mean that my friend wouldn’t be subject to an onslaught of more stuff she didn’t need or want.  (Her husband’s family was heavily into country crafts; she had more crocheted toilet seat covers than you can imagine.)  The siblings reacted as though she had suggested they put rat poison in Santa’s cookies.  She was defeated, but she did make her husband buy the gifts from then on.

The real mantra of the holiday survival game is “go with the flow.”  Just because you have nothing in common with any of your extended family, doesn’t mean you can’t survive one day in their presence.  Look at it as a rare opportunity to study, up close, bizarre human behavior in a ritualistic setting.

Sometimes it is the characters on the fringes of families that provide not only the most entertainment, but also the most poignant moments.  For many years, before his death of lung cancer, we would invite Uncle Cliff over for Thanksgiving dinner.  This was the only time we saw him the entire year.  We felt sorry for him because he was utterly alone, elderly and ill – he had lost contact with most family members long ago because of his acute alcoholism.  My husband would drive an hour each way to pick up Uncle Cliff from his tiny studio apartment in a sad section of town.  He would always arrive dressed in the same pale blue polyester leisure suit and wildly patterned tie; his physique fragile, but with eyes and ears that didn’t miss a thing.

Even though he suffered from severe emphysema, he excused himself every half-hour to go outside for a cigarette, which I remember he balanced precariously between bony trembling fingers.  Everything about him seemed frail, translucent, and breakable.  But when he sat down to dinner he put away three giant helpings of everything – mashed potatoes, turkey, cranberry sauce, gravy, sweet potatoes and rolls, followed by two kinds of pie and coffee.

And even though he was a negligible part of our lives the rest of the year, on that day he regaled us, between cigarettes and heaping plates of food, with marvelous stories of himself and other family members we had minimal knowledge of.  Stories of what it was like to grow up during the early 1900s in Los Angeles, California – a world that no longer exists.

Stories we would never have heard if we had decided he was too much trouble to invite for dinner.

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