The thing to remember as you pack your bag/gas up your car/head for the airport is this: you have opted to spend this holiday with your family of your own free will. Spending time with them is a choice, and remembering this will help keep you sane (because, as we all know, though you may be all grown up, and even have children of your own, that does not guarantee that once you have returned to your nuclear family fold, you will not regress to pouty teenagerhood or truculent toddleritude).
Nobody is promising you nonstop bliss, but going in with these handy tips will make things a lot easier.
1. Be a Kitchen Aide (or Sous-Chef, as they say in French)
Plan to arrive early and help whoever’s doing the cooking. You could even come a day early and help. How, you ask, is this going to make Thanksgiving easier? Isn’t this just going to prolong the agony?
Nope. By helping out, you are lessening the stress on the hosts. A happier host means happier guests, less bickering, fewer burnt dishes. Key here is understanding the personality of the cook and your own limitations: If you’ve got the chops, perhaps you can offer to take over an entire course, or dish, and the cook will shout “Yes!”; but maybe you’re not so handy or the cook is a bit controlling, in which case maybe you should just offer to cut up the vegetables (be sure to ask how: one person’s rough-chop is another’s dice).
Don’t take on projects above your pay grade and remember to let the boss be the boss. You may be Ina Garten, but more than likely, you’re not. So if your stepfather or auntie tells you to boil the green beans for 30 minutes, say “okay” and set the timer. When tempted to protest, ask yourself: Is this the Last Supper and if so, am I Jesus Christ? Or, alternately: Is this the last green bean I will ever eat? No, no, and no. Stop looking for trouble.
2. Show off Your Talents
Some people think my brother is insane for showing up at people’s houses and immediately commencing to fix their leaky faucets, squeaky doors, jammed kitchen drawers, and rusty bike chains. But not only is this a time-tested way to stay in touch with your adult sense of yourself as you feel the ol’ family regression coming on, but you’re also doing someone else a favor, and nothing—apart from not having to wrestle with a cantankerous drawer—feels as good as that. And you don’t have to be particularly handy. All you have to do is listen for what other people need and step up with what you can.
Is Aunt Nessie after your sister because she “never sent” that picture she promised of The Baby wearing the hat Nessie knit just for her? Before the two of them come to blows, please show Nessie how to click on links in an email and set up a big, fat, clearly labeled bookmark on her toolbar for the baby’s Tumblr called something very Nessie-friendly like BABY SUZY’S COMPUTER PICTURE DIARY.
If Uncle Bobby is going around muttering “has anybody seen my reading glasses, I just had the fool things a minute ago,” and everyone else is ignoring him, step up and put your younger eyes to work searching for them (first places to check: his chest pocket and top of his head). Really, after all he’s done for you!
3. Separate the Children From Their Parents
If the adults begin to wear on you, take a break and hang with the kids. Remember, the greatest gift you can give a parent of a small child is the gift of non-parenting. The greatest gift you can give the rest of the adults is a break from parent-child squabbling, so if there are children present other than your own, organize a group activity. Don’t get caught up in what kind of activity; it’s your attitude that matters. If you’re upbeat and enthusiastic, most kids will be willing to do whatever—especially if they’re trapped in a house of boring old people.
Take them outside if possible. Organize a game of tag, a race, a contest of any kind (who can pick up the most pinecones?). If you have to stay indoors, take them into another room and have them make place cards or draw pictures of all the guests. Older kids can be roped into errands via an alleged need for help stated as fact: “Lydia’s going to help me go the store and get ice! Let’s go, Lydia!” The parents get a break, you get some fresh air, Lydia gets to feel strong carrying a bag of ice way too big for her.
4. Do Something Together—Besides Watching TV
There is a lot of entropy to deal with at family Thanksgivings. Plenty of people who function perfectly well at dinner parties—conversing, maintaining eye contact, showing interest in their fellow humans, displaying evidence of a pulse and/or personality—degenerate into shambling, mumbling demi-zombies when re-introduced into their native habitats. This doesn’t have to happen to you or your loved ones.
You can easily sever the bonds that bind people’s asses to comfy chairs in front of the television by substituting another activity. True, if your family doesn’t have a tradition of playing basketball in the driveway or touch football on the lawn, like white people on television and the Kennedys, they’re probably not going to magically start this year. But the thing is, it’s worth suggesting, and the only way to make it happen is to make it easy for them to join. Maybe you can’t turn your family into the one you feel you deserve, but you might be able to get them to play charades, if that’s your cup of tea.
No, never? How about poker? Up your chances by first setting up the poker table: cards, spare change or chips (of any variety—plastic, potato, or kale), and chairs, then asking, “Who wants to play poker?” so no one can whinge about the possible hurdles. Lean on Uncle Ed first, who you know goes to the track. Chances are, he also plays cards.
Why go to the trouble? You will connect or reconnect with your family in a whole new way. People who feel shy at the dinner table can blossom at the card table; that quiet, dorky cousin can turn out to be amazing at Taboo; that offensive joke your stepbrother made just might be forgotten when he leads your team to glory in the final round of Timeline (a great cross-generational game, btw).
5. Get the Hell out of the House
Fresh air works wonders on morale. Look at the local movie schedule before you eat, and during the meal, before post-gorging somnolence sets in, say, “Who wants to go see Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Thanksgiving III? I’ve heard really good things about it.” Yes, even if you haven’t heard good things about it. This is a small lie, told in the hopes of getting people moving so that fewer of them have to be rushed to the hospital with elevated glucose levels, bouts of tachycardia, or terminal antsiness.
6. Remember, Family’s Not for Babies
Spending time with family can be really challenging— yes, even if you really love them and vice versa. Acknowledging this makes things a lot easier. There’s no shame in it! It’s completely human, and common, common in the most wonderful way—common in the sense of this is something we all have in common. Remembering this might give you solace: You are not alone, my friend. Not in this, nor much else, but certainly not in this.
So take a breath and then take a moment to remember that mood you were in yesterday morning. Do you remember it? When you were so grouchy/happy/frustrated and you thought it would last forever? Did it? No, it didn’t. Are you still in that mood? No, you’re not. You’re in another mood, in another place.
As much as possible, as frequently as possible, when you’re with your family this holiday season, remind yourself that you are not in purgatory or marooned on a desert island. You’re with the weirdos you’re with, and this particular assemblage, and particular conversation, just like the plate in front of you, is not going to last forever. It’s only what’s happening right now. No, these are not the last greens beans you’ll ever eat. You’ll probably get them again next year.