At Holiday Gatherings, Family Dynamics Often Come out in Full Force, Leading to Heated Conversations, and, in This Writer’s Case, the Need to Yell “blueberries”

Bless this mess.

  • Category
  • Written by
    Lissa Kapstrom
  • Illustrated by
    Yasmine Kahsai

Whether you’ve chosen yours, were born into it, or they chose you, families come with built-in dynamics. And this time of year, like an elaborately set holiday dinner table, those dynamics are on full display. In my family, things eventually get messy—and occasionally a few dishes are broken.

I have a big immediate family: one husband, one son, two parents, three sisters, one brother, three in-laws, six nieces and nephews (two now have significant others)—and counting. There will be 20 of us at Thanksgiving this year. That’s a lot of personalities. And by the way: We’re loud.

Since 2016, we’ve learned the hard way that discussing politics is verboten. We created a safe word, “blueberries,” if anyone veers in that direction. You can hear “blueberries” being shouted from different rooms throughout the night, especially between Team California and Team Missouri. Luckily, my sister’s “assignments” keep us distracted. She’s a kindergarten teacher and treats our brood accordingly. As soon as we cross the threshold, we’re instructed to sign up for various setup and cleanup duties, and write our names on a plastic cup with a Sharpie so we won’t misplace our drinks. We do anyway.

Then we’re informed of the night’s activity. Unfortunately, it’s never to recline on the couch and sip wine like I hope. Last year, we taped paper to our backs and everyone had to write one word to describe each other. We were to look at the results at the end of the night. Politics seemed tame by comparison. Would we need a new safe word?

The evening continues with everyone’s food issues. My brother-in-law is a vegan. My son is off carbs to get “cut.” My other sister is on another fad diet she claims is “the one this time.” My niece only eats white-colored food. My brother won’t eat anything with mushrooms. My dad won’t eat anything without pickles. And every year, my husband proudly makes his creamed spinach that nobody eats.

Inevitably, my divorced sister excitedly tells me about a new man she’s dating. When the obvious red flags appear, like his declaring that he wants her to be his retirement plan—causing me to have a less-than-enthusiastic reaction—she tells me I don’t understand what it’s like to be single and storms off. That’s when I pick up the cup next to me, regardless of whose name is on it, and down its contents.

Little skirmishes continue to break out during the night. How could my brother take his six-year-old to a Kiss concert? Why would my niece drop out of college when she only had a quarter left before graduation? Is it smart for my other niece to move in with her boyfriend just to save rent? Why won’t my dad walk more instead of sitting on his computer all day looking at the website Old Jews Telling Jokes? And the decibel level continues to rise.

Then right before dinner, my teacher sister announces one more activity. We are to stand in a circle, hold hands, and one by one say what we’re thankful for. There’s some initial eye rolling. But it turns out, the number one thing on everyone’s list is … family. For the first time, the room grows quiet. Tears begin to flow. Slights are forgotten. And we all raise our cups with the wrong names and loudly make a toast, “To our family!” During the hugs, I suddenly feel someone write something on the paper taped to my back and realize the night is still young.

Lissa Kapstrom is a TV writer and producer. She lives in Sherman Oaks with her husband; their son is in college.