“Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.” – Jo Harjo
In my fiction writing, I examine the complexities of familial love, usually as it relates to the bond between mothers and daughters and how it can be fraught with challenges, maybe even broken, and how it can be mended (or not) through a series of encounters that bring to light long-standing secrets and sometimes outright lies.
The holiday season is particularly rife with fodder like this. Yes, it’s catnip for writers like us, what with families coming from far and near to celebrate, bringing with them all the old rivalries, hurt feelings, prejudices, and behavior patterns unique to them (quick nod to Tolstoy here), the memories of which are as fresh in everyone’s minds as though it all happened yesterday.
But while the writer in you is frantically taking internal notes about dialogue, body language, and subtext, take a moment to wonder why we hang on so tenaciously to events so long in the past that often no one quite remembers when they happened, or more importantly why. How wonderful it would be to have a fancy contraption we could position on our front stoop, like those X-ray machines at the airport, and before entering our home, each family member would step in, raise their arms, stand perfectly still, and all their petty gripes and prejudices would instantly be zapped away, leaving behind only pleasant memories.
They’d remember the family camping trips in the summer when they learned to fish and make s-mores. They’d recall the school play where they shone as the second lead and both their parents clapped from the audience. They’d have a brief glimpse of Dad teaching them to ride a bike or Mom fixing cinnamon rolls every Saturday morning. They’d remember how their cousin pitched in when the photographer was a no-show at their wedding. But that ugly fight between their parents when Dad left for three days? That unpleasant time their mother cried over a remark they made as a sullen teenager? Two years ago when the family split down the middle about whether to wear masks for Thanksgiving? Those memories would be wiped away, forgotten, left outside on the porch.
And just this once, everyone starts with a clean slate. Your mother-in-law doesn’t try to take over the kitchen, telling you everything that’s wrong with your mashed potatoes. Your brother-in-law doesn’t bring up the last election in the middle of the meal, his crossed arms indicating he’s still ready for a fight. You don’t rant about why your sister can’t control her kids (who’ve torn up your house in under five minutes) but marvel at their energy and sense of joy.
What if instead of a battlefield, your family gathering this year became a lovefest? A celebration of all the wonderful memories you share and a recognition of how lucky you are to be able to come together at this time of year with people you love. Forget presents. Forget fancy meals that put extra stress on everyone. Forget hours spent decorating only to have your cousin’s dog tip over the tree. Forget trudging out in frigid temperatures to attend another production of the Nutcracker. Make a pledge today to do the simplest and least expensive holiday activity around—all of you sitting around a kitchen table, sharing a pizza, laughing over pleasant memories and sharing the positive things going on in your life. No awkward silences as you avoid certain topics. No sideways glances or rolling of the eyes over someone’s stupid remarks. Treat every family member as the rich treasure they are.
Some families will have an empty chair at the table this season. My guess is when they talk about the person missing, it won’t be about how they talked too much, or held crazy political views, or always turned every remark into a dig. Instead they’ll remember the positive things about them—their skill at fixing a broken toy, their volunteer work, their love of crosswords.
So fellow writer, here’s my challenge. You can’t change the other members of your family. But there is a machine you carry inside you that can wipe out all the unpleasant memories you cart around—old hurts, rivalries, grudges. Fire up your imagination and look at your family in a whole new way this holiday season. Make a conscious effort to remember at least one positive attribute about each one of them and tuck that in your heart as you welcome them into your home.
Just as good as that machine. And readily available at a moment’s notice.