In my version, we all hold hands around the table, smile lovingly, and share how grateful we all are for the selfless, meaningful things we’ve done for each other all year. The dog curls up contentedly in a corner. No one drinks too much. No one says anything cynical. No teenager brings their phone. No child tantrums. No older siblings laugh about painful memories from the past. No in-laws are critical. All the food turns out perfectly; my pies set just fine. A shaft of beautiful light falls across the table and a slight breeze blows our hair in an attractive way.
What’s your version? It’s what you think Thanksgiving should be before you realize it’s all the same people.
Just as when we sit on a bicycle we have muscle memory for pedaling, when we sit with our first family, we have a kind of muscle memory for “nuts.”
That means If you were tense growing up, even if you’re normally very calm now, you might feel anxiety at the table. If you could never get a word in edgewise as a kid, though you may be very articulate now, you could feel tongue-tied. If you were the funny one, who lightened everything up, you might find yourself acting the clown. If the family had a culture of criticism or bickering, even if you spend most of your adult life in a good mood, you may catch yourself sparing with someone. If withdrawing helped you cope, or you spent a lot of time alone, you might gravitate toward the dishwasher. Or, if your childhood was a playful delight, you could end up twirling in the living room at 56, which in my book, is just fine.
The truth is, no one is the same now as they were when they were children; we just have a habit of acting that way with when we are with our first families.
Here are a few simple strategies if Thanksgiving tends to get weird:
- Start Thanksgiving Day right by thinking about what you are grateful for in your life. Before anything else happens, get to the point. Let your mind go: sunsets, your children, ice cream…. All of it.
- Think about what you do to cope with the difficulties of your adult life now. Do you exercise? Do you schedule yourself down time? Do you make time for close relationships? Whatever they are, throw in some on Thanksgiving Day. Include a run or some yoga before everything gets going. Step away from the crowd a couple of times throughout the day. Relax out on the porch with the changing leaves. Plan to meet your partner for some one-on-one time, just to take a breath and check in. In other words, don’t give up your healthy habits just because you’re hanging out with people who knew you before you had them.
- Try visiting the kids table. Relating with the newer people in the family can give you a reprieve from the old stories and old roles. Usually, new people see you for who you have become, not who you were. Also, kids play more than adults do, so they’re apt to be more fun. This is where you could end up twirling.
- Use simple social skills. You already know how to use these at work and with good friends. Try not to slip back into the time before you had them. Go ahead and ask questions, pay compliments, listen, and create reciprocity in your conversations.
- Finally, counter reactivity, with activity. If you’re getting edgy, break out the scrabble, play the piano, take a field trip to the park, take the pictures, play with the pets, or throw the ball around. These kinds of things can bring you out of the past, out of the future you wish for, and back to this moment now. Which, in turn, usually brings you back to where you started, with gratitude.
…. The trees in midtown, garden peppers, the ocean, Elizabeth Ginger Chocolates, my clients, the Yolo Bypass, geese, the delta, little laughing kids, firefighters, persimmons, old friends, corn muffins, yoga, this moment now …. Happy Thanksgiving.