In Norman Rockwell's familiar Thanksgiving fantasy, Grandma presents a glistening turkey to a happy, multigenerational family.
Cut to real life: Disasters range from a firebombed deep-fried turkey to soggy pumpkin pie. And that's just the food! Adding to the mix is a country divided more than ever by politics — some nerves will be understandably frayed.
Unlike the Rockwell tableau, some dinner table conversation more closely resembles the family fireworks in August: Osage County. Thanksgiving can come to mean "family, food, football and feuds," says Helen Oxenberg, an advice columnist and social worker.
For years, Oxenberg has hosted an annual gathering in her New Jersey home for her four adult children and their families from near and far. Her strategy for a happy holiday begins with taking everyone's particular situation into account.
"Compromise is the name of the game, especially today with divorces and remarriages, and the new in-laws and the old in-laws," Oxenberg says. For example: To accommodate her children's other families, she schedules Thanksgiving dinner for the last Saturday in November and her children go elsewhere on Thursday.
No matter what day of the week, Thanksgiving has the potential for flare-ups, often fueled by too much alcohol. As parents, we know what can trigger a scene: from sibling rivalries and political and financial differences to misbehaving grandkids. Oxenberg offers several tips as preventive measures.
- Telephone potentially warring guests and ask them — nicely — to "leave the conflicts at the door and pick them up on the way out."
- Ask for help with everything from flowers to food and other arrangements. That gives guests a vested interest in a happy gathering.
- Tell guests that each person around the table will be asked to share what they are thankful for and to explain why.
- Ban cellphones and other technology from the table. That way, everyone has to focus on real people, not their digital counterparts.
What happens if, even with that planning, the conversation starts to show signs of deteriorating? Karen Gail Lewis, a relationship therapist, suggests that a hostess consider a "plan of action" by ending the topic, taking the conversation in another direction or changing the tone. "Remember, humor is a most effective and underutilized means for altering unpleasant family scenes," she writes.
One more predinner tip: Stock up on knock-knock jokes and prime one of the younger family members to tell a few on your cue. That should help lighten the mood as the family sits elbow to elbow around the table.
If all else fails, ask for help cleaning up, turn on a football game and hand back those cellphones!
Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. An NYU journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at http://Mothering21.com.