I’ve been at enough family holiday parties to know that they are virtually all the same.
If you are a guest, the mother of your friend puts her hand on your shoulder as soon as someone makes an off color joke and says, “I bet your family isn’t as crazy as ours!” If you are not the guest and are watching your own mother laugh nervously in front of your friend, you silently raise your eyebrows, and think, “Oh yes they are.”
The characters vary little from house to house. There is the one relative who always hovers near the dessert table, forever evening the edges of the pies. She discusses the stock market with the uncle who refuses to take the last cookie on the platter and breaks off half instead, proud of his magnanimity.
In the next room, nieces and nephews pile onto couches and pillows on the floor watching a TV show the rest of the family has never heard of, which they point out, sigh, and proclaim, “We must be getting old.” Behind the couch stands the one cousin who is forever on his phone, roping anyone who walks past into a discussion of the weather in Chicago, and how if the forecast gets any worse, he just might miss his flight home.
In the kitchen is the grandmother persistently reminding everyone what time church is at tomorrow, until she gets roped into a long discussion of every neighbor who has lived on that block in the last 50 years with the aunt who thinks that Queen Anne’s Cordials are a delicacy. In the hallway is the granddaughter avoiding said grandmother and her invasive questions about marriage and babies.
In the days beforehand, there are calls to parents, the careful secondhand sussing out of how everyone voted. Nothing ruins a holiday dinner faster than a debate over who should have won the county coroner’s race. Everyone talks about the ones who aren’t there, those who are estranged, passed away, or simply gallivanting around another country, broadening their horizons by learning how to order beer in a foreign language.
At the center of it all is family – a genetic obligation to save each other from fires before rescuing strangers, and to dine together on days when the banks are closed.
As a child, these seasonal gatherings were my epicenter of everything, the anchor for my year. I bounced happily from room to room in houses crowded with cousins, Chex Mix and joy that radiated.
Now my own two contributions to the family run amok through these get-togethers, high on sugar, attention, and unconditional love. We balance gatherings with multiple families – those down the street, across the state, and across the country. My perspective has broadened a bit, realizing that, of course, it was not all happiness and shortbread cookies shaped like stars. Disagreements and discord and our attempts to set them aside decorate everybody’s holidays. But nevertheless, gravity and the desire to eat turkey beside the person who slept in the top bunk growing up keeps pulling us back together.
Families are all alike in the best and worse ways—their ability to share joy and inflict pain is unparalleled. They grow, divide, conquer, and multiply. They are our own.