He was an Eisenhower Republican (though his loathing for Nixon would cause him to cast votes for Democratic presidential candidates for the next two decades). She was a liberal Democrat. He made scathing remarks about every ethnic group on earth --even the Irish ("incredibly stupid, shiftless, drunken, Church-hobbled people") -- but excluded the Chinese and Native Americans from his rancorous comments because his beloved late father, a lawyer, had worked with and befriended them. Aunt Molly called him on his unrepentant racism at every opportunity.
One of their most memorable battles began with a half-hearted skirmish about Adlai Stevenson and then began to heat up when Aunt Molly urged Father to stop drinking in the kitchen and come relax and watch televison with the family. We were mid-way through an episode of "Have Gun, Will Travel." Father sat down grumbling, just as a fight scene started onscreen. He snorted in disgust. "Goddam Hollywood judo!" he muttered.
In an instant, Aunt Molly was on her feet. "Can't you leave the Jews out of anything?" she yelled. "Do you always have to make horrible comments about such fine people?" And she stormed out of the living room, out the back door and to the workshop/guest room in the back yard, tossing her lit cigarette aside and slamming and locking the door of the workshop behind her.
"Judo! I said 'Judo!'" my father yelled after her, leaning out the back door.
Suddenly, he realized that a small dry bush under the kitchen window had been ignited by Aunt Molly's discarded cigarette. Frantic, he ran to the workshop to get his fire extinguisher and found the door locked. "Molly,' he screamed. "Let me in! The house is on fire! I need the fire extinguisher!"
"Go away!" she yelled back.
And, as they continued to yell at each other through the locked door, my mother extinguished the small blaze with the garden hose.
Most of their fights weren't quite so dramatic. Some seemed positively recreational. Still, they tended have their most impressive ones on major holidays. It was as predictable as cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.
And after Father died in 1980, Molly seemed wistful but resigned on all holidays thereafter to forgo the fighting drama. It was impossible: we all agreed with her and each other on all the sensitive issues. Harmony was nice, but there were times, I think, when she longed for a good, screaming holiday fight.
There are many families for whom lively holiday table debates and family skirmishes are an integral and enjoyable part of the holiday. For many, nothing can beat a good recreational family battle. If the conflicts were taken away, the holidays would pale.
But not everyone thrives on holiday controversy.
For some families, less inclined to high drama, the comments can be quiet, but cutting: differences in religious beliefs or politics or sexual proclivities or lifestyles can take tense center stage.
And for some, family fights and hurtful comments can drive emotional wedges between family members that can last years, causing painful and unnecessary estrangements.
How can you dodge such minefields at your holiday table?
Make a decision to avoid touchy subjects. Just because you disagree on certain key topics, you don't have to air these differences when you're together. There are so many other things to talk about, laugh about and and share. Bob and I recently had a delightful two-hour dinner out with our neighbors Carl and Judith. We differ with each other, to varying degrees, on politics and religion. But that doesn't mean we can't be friends or have a wonderful evening together. Our evening was filled with lively conversation and much laughter. We had a terrific time.
Don't take the bait. If you've made a decision to avoid touchy subjects, but another family member or friend zeros in, don't bite. Deflect the conversation to something else. Say you're trying to be on good behavior and love everybody today. Joke in a cautionary way: "Let's not go there. You know how I get." And then change the subject. If you know that you and your mother-in-law will never agree on religious matters, don't get into the usual exchange. It isn't worth it. You won't change her mind. You'll get your blood pressure up. And your arguing could end up annoying everyone. Just for today, you can take a deep breath and stop the conflict before it starts.
Know the difference between recreational and serious fighting. Fighting is recreational only if both parties agree that it is. If one person starts a conflict just for the fun and excitement that ends up seriously upsetting another, that's a fight not worth starting or continuing. Play bickering, if part of a family/sibling tradition is one thing. But a fight that ends up with tears or with someone stomping away from the holiday table, this quite something else. You know from past experience how much teasing or play fighting another can take or whether it's appropriate at all. Take a cue from holidays past -- and aim to make this one happier for all.
If your skirmishes upset other family members, establish a conflict turf away from the holiday table. There are times when even a recreational fight can ruin a family holiday meal if others are bothered by bickering, barbs and conflict. If the holidays would be lame without a good recreational fight with a long-time opponent, indulge yourselves in a more private setting. Go to the den, to the patio in warmer climes, for a drive if you're so inclined -- anywhere you can argue to your hearts' content without upsetting anyone else.
Avoid or call out deliberate cruelty. Whatever the family dynamics, there is no excuse -- ever -- for deliberate cruelty. My husband Bob's younger brother Miles had grown up determined to make his way in the world by marrying a rich woman. And he hit the jackpot with Cyndi. Not only was she rich, coming from gracious Old Money, but also she was beautiful and kind. Both Bob and I liked her immensely. Miles became a stockbroker and increased their wealth. When they were 24, they were living in a gorgeous house overlooking the ocean in Corona del Mar/Newport Beach in Southern California. At the same time, Bob and I were in our early married lean years, slowly building toward the affluent life we were later to enjoy, living in an apartment and counting our pennies. We never begrudged them their lifestyle. However, Miles never missed an opportunity to humiliate us, especially during holiday gift-giving. He made fun of us the Christmas we had requested a low-key gift exchange and actually rejected our home made gifts while giving me a dime-store pair of outrageously over-sized panties at a time I was just starting to put on some weight, roaring with laughter as I opened the package. But he exceeded himself one Christmas not long after I had lost both my parents. Not only was I grieving my parents but I was also in my mid-thirties grieving Bob's and my involuntary childlessness even as Miles and Cyndi were having and nurturing their two sons. At the holiday table, Miles suddenly started making fun of me as the only "non-mother" at the table, saying that it was a joy I would never experience. I was stunned and stung by his cruelty -- and cried with anger, outrage and grief all the way home. Obviously, even today -- nearly 30 years after the fact -- I still feel a surge of anger thinking about it -- and it has been many years since Bob and I have shared a holiday meal -- or any time at all -- with his brother's family. The seeds of this estrangement were sown, at least in part, in the hurt of those long-ago holidays.
Give a holiday gift of flexibility and understanding. This can mean calling a truce, changing a stance, volunteering to be the one who makes peace. For example, it may mean going to church services without grumbling or complaining if it would mean a lot to someone you love, even if you no longer believe (or never did). Or make it easier for loved ones to attend services by offering to babysit or to prepare a post-services meal. Or give a family member or friend the gift of a listening ear without negative feedback. Or suggest doing something that you know would be meaningful for them even if it's something you wouldn't dream of doing on your own.
More than 50 years after the fact, I still smile when I think of Aunt Molly's suggestion one day during Christmas vacation that she drive me all the way into Hollywood (a 60 mile roundtrip with horrible traffic even then) to see "The Nun's Story." I was in the midst of the sanctimonious-religious phase of my adolescence, which she found more than a little trying. Yet she knew that I wanted more than anything to see that movie. And she volunteered to take me and sit through it without any caustic comments (of which she was quite capable) about the Catholic Church. I've never forgotten the love behind this holiday gift to me.
Perhaps the best way to navigate holiday conversational minefields is to remember the love that brings us together for the holidays. As a holiday gift to those you love, hold your tongue. Suspend judgement. Deflect inflammatory comments. Do something that may be inconvenient or hard or boring to you -- but is a joy to someone else.
If you do any or all of these things, you may make a major difference for someone you love this holiday season: a memory of kindness to be treasured for years to come.