(Originally published in Main Line Life on 11/26/08)
Please note: As in any holiday essay, resemblance to current or former family members is purely coincidental and should not be construed as slanderous or mean-spirited in any way whatsoever.
Even in the best of times, putting twenty-two people together in one house, who normally have little to do with one another the rest of the year, and then expecting them to get along and even enjoy one another’s company, is asking an awful lot. Add to that the fact that we still seem to be emerging from a contentious election year, and that we are in a severe economic downturn, and you have the potential for all sorts of interesting dialogue around the dinner table. Just add copious amounts of alcohol, and wait for the fireworks to begin!
When you are young and still living at home, the holidays can be endured fairly easily. Even if weird Uncle John has cornered you once again and is giving you a detailed history of how he sat out the Vietnam War in a cave in the upper provinces of Canada, you can at least slip out at some point in his rambling, marijuana-induced monologue and escape to your room. You don’t know it, but this is the last time you will be able to do this. Once you are an adult, you will actually have to stay and listen. There are no escape routes. (That’s where the alcohol comes in.)
When you leave home and go off to college, or enter the work force, you are not required by any law that I am aware of to return home for the holidays. And you may fleetingly fantasize about skipping the whole thing and flying down to a beach in Mexico instead. Then you call your mother. She tells you it’s “perfectly fine” with her if you go on a nice vacation by yourself. She can shop and cook and clean up for twenty-two people (twenty-one without you) just fine on her own. No problem! Go have fun! You sigh deeply and toss your bikini to the back of your closet.
The next chapter in our holiday saga is perhaps the most fraught with potential landmines. You are now a young newlywed having to choose where to spend the holiday – with your parents or your spouse’s family. There is no right way to do this without causing hard feelings that will be dredged up for decades to come, so, if geographically possible, you will do both. And in a tryptophan and sugar-induced coma you will ponder the miraculous quirk of fate that drew the two of you together.
Somehow a routine is established over the years, and you manage to work out a system that hurts the fewest feelings. (No one will ever be totally satisfied, so don’t even try.) This system involves long drives on icy roads, days of sitting in front of football games you don’t want to watch, maneuvering your way around another woman’s kitchen without offending her way of doing things, and hours of hearing the same stories from Aunt Lillian. It is impossible to escape Aunt Lillian, because once she launches into her monologue, she does not need to take a breath. Ever. That reminds me of when I was a little thing about your size oh did I tell you about Cousin Bob he’s the one who got the cancer horrible way to go he was married to that Portuguese she was an odd one did I show you the scar from my gall bladder surgery maybe I will have another splash of vodka my bunions are killing me that onion dip always gives me gas.
One year – you’re not sure how – the turkey leg gets passed, and suddenly you are now the host. The entire cast of characters moves as one to your home because that’s just the way it is. There is no escaping your fate, there are no trips to Mexico to the beach, so buck up. You will shop and cook and clean and listen to all the stories again, and your children will try and hide in their rooms away from Aunt Lillian. But you will firmly guide them to her, and you will say to them out of her earshot (she can’t hear much now anyway) Sit and listen. You may learn something. She’s family.