Every Thanksgiving, Maggie Hanson’s mother travels across the country and through a time warp to commandeer the meal preparation at Maggie’s house. It’s been going on for decades, much to Hanson’s chagrin.
Because mother only visits on Thanksgiving Day, Hanson lets mother be mother. Why ruffle feathers one day a year?
But last Thanksgiving, mother, who always arrives early to “help,” upped the ante. She marched into the kitchen shortly before lunchtime and flipped a latch to what she soon realized was a self-cleaning oven. For the next 4-1/2 hours, the oven was locked in cleaning mode with the turkey inside. By the time the meal was served, the relationship between mother and daughter temporarily had come undone. The bird was overdone, permanently.
The incident brings to light what family therapists have known for years: A family that gathers one day a year and tries to make up for the 364 days apart is a family destined to encounter some turbulence.
“People go home longing for the smells and coddling of childhood. But the bottom line is that more than a few of us get emotional indigestion,” said Zelda Schwartz, a family therapist at Jewish Family Service in Worcester. “People are likely to fall back into the picky roles they played as children and parents. By the time it’s over, Sunday can’t come fast enough.”
Consider, for example, some of the perennial problems that come at turkey time. Shoppers picking through turkeys the other day at a Boston supermarket were surprisingly open about upcoming family challenges.
“Money. Every year it’s money,” Rita Sullivan, 62. “I was the executor of my father’s estate. I set up a fund to put flowers on his grave until the year 2000. My sisters thought it was a terrible idea. I hear about it every Thanksgiving.”
Sullivan heaved a 10-pound turkey into her cart and started walking away. Then she paused, turned around, and added: “Wow! That felt so good to say!”
The Vega family eats every Thanksgiving meal at the Golden Buddha restaurant in suburban Malden.
“Each year my brother and I agree we’re going to split the bill for our parents. And each year my brother pretends to look shocked as he announces he has forgotten his money,” explained Oscar Vega, 33. “‘Next year,’ he promises. And I never learn.”
Martha Myers, 56, says there hasn’t been a Thanksgiving of late when she hasn’t found herself reverting to the quiet, obedient, oldest daughter of parents who live in Dayton, Ohio.
“I can’t seem to help it,” she said. “I go home, I get intimidated as people try to fit a life’s worth of conflicts into a three-hour dinner.”
To people such as Myers, Schwartz offers the following advice: For the trip “home” for Thanksgiving, pack emotionally light.
“Take less expectations. Turn that indigestion into wonder. But this is going to take a little preparation,” she said.
So how does she suggest we prepare?
“Everyone returning to a family for Thanksgiving should take the vow: Thou shalt not instruct. Instead, go ready and willing to share an aspect of life in the past year that has led to new insight about your own life,” she advised. “And go to the table prepared to listen.”
Often the friction at home starts when the returning brother, sister, or parent who has “succeeded” in life tries to preach to a struggling family member, Schwartz said. But instructional shortcuts aren’t expressions of love. “More often than not, they’re alienating, self-righteous exercises in impatience and one-upmanship.”
Dr. William Pollack, a psychologist affiliated with McLean Hospital and the Harvard Medical School, added this advice: “If there are family conflicts that members either ignore or struggle with the rest of the year, don’t try to solve them next Thursday.”
This is not to say that every Thanksgiving skirmish requires psychoanalysis. Shoppers last week ticked off dozens of contenders more suited to homegrown conflict resolution. For example, how should the turkey be carved - all at once, or side by side as demand for second helpings dictates? Who will wield the knife? Is carving an honor or a chore?
Shoppers agreed that these were issues the Alpha males generally resolved.
Are the cranberry sauce, gravy, and mashed potatoes better lumpy or smooth? Is the vegetarian cousin going to eat turkey this year? Should the children be forced to stay at the table after they’re done? Why do my children always get stuck at the children’s table?
Shoppers agreed that these were issues the wives of the Alpha males generally addressed each year.
Another shopper at Omni Foods, requesting anonymity, said the Thanksgiving meal she attends at her New Jersey in-laws’ house has become less a family reunion than a sweet-potato bakeoff.
“My mother-in-law doesn’t make food requests. She makes food assignments,” the shopper said. With each assignment comes the recipe so the dishes are guaranteed to taste the same as they did last year, and the year before that, back to the year mother-in-law first cooked them.
“I’ve come to feel it’s not just my sweet potatoes on trial here, but my very womanhood, and how it relates to a microwave oven,” she said.
And this returns us to the self-cleaning oven of Maggie Hanson. This year, she has adopted a new strategy for dealing with a mother who shows up early.
Thursday’s meal is scheduled for 2 p.m.
Mother, who lives beyond the readership of this newspaper, has been told 3 p.m.