Holidays Are From Hell -- and Heaven

Who says you can't go home again? The better question is, do I have to go home again? The holidays are here, which means the young'uns and I will make our yearly trek home to reunite with the rest of our clan for a really big dinner and a healthy helping of family follies. For some reason, Thanksgiving seems to propel my family to its highest level of dysfunction. Something about getting that many of us in such close quarters just brings out the worst in us, I guess.

My mom usually takes on the responsibility of preparing the feast, which by now we all realize is not a good plan. The first secret for enduring Thanksgiving dinner with my family is to silently tack on a good two to three hours to my mother's announced dinnertime before really expecting anything to eat. It frequently happens that the gang's all there, ready to get their grub on, and the bird of honor is looking only slightly less pasty than Elmer's glue. Since cooking is not my forte (unless heating food in the microwave has finally arrived as a legitimate form of cooking) I have to give my mom her props. Sooner or later, she puts on a good spread.

I heard through the grapevine that my little sister is making dinner this year. I'm somewhat skeptical about the whole thing; I imagine it will be a little like the Peanuts Thanksgiving special where Charlie Brown makes burnt toast and popcorn. Seriously, while she probably can cook better than me (remember, I only microwave), I just don't know if she can handle the pressure. It's no coincidence that my little sister and the terminology "spaz attack" came of age at roughly the same time -- she has about as much patience as the Tasmanian devil. And my family can try some patience. In past years, little details like forgetting to prepare someone's favorite side dish or a Turkey day staple gone wrong has been known to reduce my mother to a raving lunatic. Relatively innocent comments like, "I wish there were peas," have been enough to turn a grown woman against her only son.

While mayhem is brewing in the kitchen -- alongside that pan of peas that is now never forsaken -- there is plenty of action in the rest of the house. There is never any shortage of children running amok: despite our best efforts to interest them in the famous televised parades, the network people have rendered these broadcasts simply unbearable with the commentators' incessant banter. As the aunts, uncles and cousins begin to filter in, an old saying comes to mind. You know how they say, "there's one in every family"? In my family, it's more like there's three or four. There's the aunt whose financial planning strategies include purposely getting hit by cars so she can sue the drivers. As luck would have it, one night in a drunken stupor she fell into a snow bank and got hit by a city-operated snowplow, which really paid off. Then there's the chain-smoking uncle who doesn't exactly pride himself on his subtlety. His jokes rise above the old "pull my finger" ruse, but only barely.

As if there weren't enough screwballs in our immediate family, my mom has a habit of inviting the rowdiest people she can find to join our repast. One time it was a whole motorcycle gang, another an eccentric couple she had met at the bowling alley a week earlier, and a third year a guy who was affectionately referred to by the locals as the "village idiot." We kids would all give each other looks like, "why is this woman bringing these people into our house?" as Mom invited the strangers to say grace.

One memorable year the guest began, in what was possibly the longest blessing ever given to a meal, by telling about the time he drank 80 beers in one night. I guess his point was to give thanks for surviving such a reckless event, although it was clear to us that he had not emerged completely unscathed. Still, my mom's willingness to include in our celebration those who had no family or place to go may have felt inconvenient or embarrassing at times, but her innate generosity represents the best of the season, and a rare spirit that is admirable once recognized for what it truly is.

Going to Thanksgiving dinner with my family is certainly a draining experience. Don't get me wrong -- I love my people, it's just that I can only take the whole lot of us in small doses. Luckily, Thanksgiving only comes once a year, so I grin and bear it. Besides, it's not all bad. While it may feel momentarily like we have turned into an episode of The Simpsons (okay, so I watch a lot of cartoons), in the end the fact that we have each other -- for better or for worse -- is truly our greatest blessing.

Bethany Allen is a working mother of three and a student at Harvard University. She can be reached at

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