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Reality Bites

Surviving dysfunctional family holiday meals

By Marina Wolf

HOLIDAY dinners with family are exercises in controlled lunacy. This is so true that in print it looks ridiculous. But I just wanted to say it so that you know you're not alone in your fear. I blame illustrator Norman Rockwell for our collective ambivalence about special-occasion family dinners. His bucolic depictions of family life have lingered in the public imagination as a blueprint for familial bliss, especially the one where everyone is gazing at Dad hovering over the turkey as if he were bringing in Baby Jesus on a platter. Did you know he lived in New York City?

Not Jesus, Norman Rockwell.

That dining-room scene was probably inspired by the eternal fighting of the family in the next-door apartment and the scrawny plucked pigeons that were the specialty of the butcher down the street. It was Rockwell's fantasy, don't you see? Of course, now it has become the impossible ideal that everyone else resents even as we long for it. Face it, no matter how much linen and china and plastic centerpieces we pile on the table, we'll never make it to a Rockwell moment. We've been up too late, or drinking too much, and getting that dull throbbing headache from too many nights on a fold-out foam mattress.

And look at the meal itself! It's a travesty of justice, civility, and gastronomic logic, all rolled into a two-hour feeding frenzy. One sibling persists in a childhood hatred of all things tomato except ketchup, a young nephew eats nothing but bread, on his plate and everyone else's. And even though we're all adults now, and there's plenty of food left, we eye the other plates to make sure we didn't get ripped off in the serving-size department.

Feel free to join the chorus, because your family dinners probably have weird characters, too, like an uncle who refuses to stop burping because he thinks it's unhealthy to suppress gastric functions, or a sister who cleans out her fridge and brings the contents out to family potlucks. But family dinners never stay in the present, with their motley, but surface, issues about eating habits and politics. Somehow, in front of the audience of in-laws, the primal dramas get stirred back up, and that's a recipe for excitement, if not indigestion. The debate may start out about the stuffing, but stick with it long enough and the whole thing will somehow degenerate into a no-holds-barred blowout about who got better gifts back in 1977 and what that says about each personality present.

Even if there are no actual doors slammed or obscenities yelled, while Mary and the Christ Child look down from on top of the piano and the mashed potatoes get cold, the feelings are there.

Luckily for me, my family has never been much for repressing emotion. Individually and collectively we have mood swings that could kill a horse at 50 paces. So when everything's going well at the dinner table, we get a little jumpy, like soldiers who have been in the trenches for a week and can't get used to peacetime quiet. We feel most at home when voices are raised and there's a little roughhousing around the edges. We're at one another from the moment we start planning the menu until after the dessert dishes are washed. It's an inevitable result of too many people packed around the table, too many cooks in the kitchen, each with our own tastes and techniques, and all of them fair game for debate.

Some years are worse than others. I remember one year, when I was 16 or 17, it got so bad that I stormed out of the house to walk four blocks in the snow without a coat. My grandma followed me in her slippers, begging me to come back and finish making the gravy. If not for that serious issue, I might have kept going and frozen to death on my way to the next town.

I remember that day every year around the holidays--there are, on average, three or four such crises on each visit. My girlfriend has witnessed some of it, and we talk every winter about starting our own, healthy, humanistic traditions at home. Maybe we'll stay in pajamas all day and eat our dinner out of little white boxes with wire handles.

But every year I end up rejecting the new world for a few days and returning to the old, to a family landscape, to the roast beast prepared by nine cooks, and the stuffing that launched a thousand fits.

And sometimes, in the middle of all the chaos, peace descends, a completely unexpected gift from the universe. Such a moment stands out in my mind from a couple of years ago, a moment of utter contentment that came upon me while I was directing dinner preparations.

The house was warm and good-smelling. Everybody kept taking swipes at the appetizers (the highest compliment to the chef, as everybody knows); the night was young, so we had time after dinner for dessert, Scrabble, and then more dessert. One brother was making jokes and laughing at them in that toothy way of his; another brother was frying some onions on the stove. Dad was taking a nap in the living room with a sleeping grandchild lying on his belly like a baby monkey, and I was draining a can of black olives and eating one for every five in the bowl.

Does it get any better than this?

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From the December 21-27, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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