Thanksgiving Day dinner is nowhere near the food fight it ought to be, if you ask me, and I’m not sure how to feel about it. I’m a little bit appalled.
Before Thanksgiving, everyone who wrote about it was promising civil war. A certain amount of that genre may be perennial, based on the bad uncle concept, but I think there was substantially more to it this year because of President Donald Trump.
The bad uncle is the one relative — could just as easily be an aunt or brother-in-law — who can be counted on to say all the worst things, those that must never be said at the table. The bad uncle has always been there, but this year the national political situation stirred up an added amount of pre-Thanksgiving anxiety.
All I know is that I had my hopes up. Newspapers, TV and social media all predicted family conflagration. I don’t know how many times I came across columns and posts offering advice to families on how to avoid conflict at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah, all of which I took to mean there would be some especially great conflict this year. I practiced up my best lines, like, “Is there any quid pro quo left?”
It was a total letdown. At the several meals I either participated in or knew a lot about, everything was sweetness, light and calm. The white meat was just moist enough even though it had sat in a Styrofoam box on the porch for a week after Amazon delivered it. The cranberry sauce was exactly right, even though it came straight out of a can from Tom Thumb. I whispered my line about quid pro quo, and they gave me stuffing. Stuffing!
But as soon as things got rolling, I remembered why this happens. The family as a precarious stockpile of volatile human tendency is a Hollywood cliché. The reality is that families more often are emotional in-sink garbage disposals capable of ingesting vast quantities of sin, debt, betrayal, transgression and ill humor, grinding it all down to a thin soup of forgiveness and flushing it down the history pipe.
Here is where I get myself bollixed up about it. My work takes me to the place of no forgiveness, the world of politics and public posturing where no offense can be cleansed from the books, ever. A man is trying to get confirmed to a seat on the Supreme Court; a woman is running for president; a proposal is made for reducing tension in the Middle East; it doesn’t matter what. The search begins immediately for the most arcane unforgotten and unforgiven sin in the deep long past.
As it should. Some things need to be remembered. Heinous acts need to be punished, if they haven’t been already. Even if they have, sometimes we feel like punishing them some more. We don’t just forgive everything.
Unless we are families. Families are where the whole forgiveness thing gets its start. Families are forgiveness machines. They can’t stop forgiving. Imagine Thanksgiving dinner at Genghis Khan’s house. He mutters, “I feel a little bad about the massacres.”
“Phshaw. We’ve all done it, Genghis. Have some more of this delicious canned cranberry sauce from Tom Thumb.”
Of course, I think it’s dangerous, but naturally I would. In a world of total forgiveness for everything, there would be no columnists. I do recognize my own self-interest here.
In fact, when I look back on all of the wonderfully dire predictions I saw by other columnists and commentators before this recent Thanksgiving, I can’t help wondering what my tribe’s true subconscious motivation may be for writing that kind of stuff. Are we really trying to get people kind of juked up for a fight?
Don’t mention politics. Don’t say Trump. Don’t say Biden. Don’t say quid pro quo. Don’t ask people how they’re going to vote. Don’t say Ukraine.
Who would say Ukraine at Thanksgiving dinner anyway, unless you primed them?
Be on pins and needles in case the bad uncle says Ukraine. If he does, say something like, “Oh, let’s not talk about Ukraine on Thanksgiving Day,” so you’ll look like the holier-than-thou good guy and the bad uncle will look stupid again. We might as well teach people how to lay out the bad uncle with a chop to the neck.
With some notable exceptions, none of that is the real world. It’s the opposite of how families operate. Bad Uncle makes a joke about Good Uncle’s stinginess, even though everyone at the table knows Bad Uncle owes Good Uncle a lot of money. I get my hopes up.
But does Good Uncle nail him on it at Thanksgiving Day dinner? Of course not. Good Uncle offers Bad Uncle more stuffing. I sink back in my chair, staring at my own over-generous serving.
Sometimes I watch it happening, the forgiveness, the disappearance of debt, regret and genuine injury, and it seems almost like something is being done with a magical forgiveness wand. The money that Bad Uncle owes Good Uncle. Boink. Gone. The thing about the girl from Indiana. Poof. Vanished. Plenty of dark meat left, folks, and hot gravy on the stove.
It’s sort of like a scale. In the weighing dish on one side is the implacable vindictiveness of public life, where even the most mundane early mistake is cherished and burnished forever. In the other dish are families, where even Genghis Khan gets a pass.
Maybe it’s more like a road, with family at the beginning and politics at the other end. Here comes Forgiveness, fat, sassy and forgetful after Thanksgiving Day dinner with the family, strolling blissful and unaware down the road toward politics. What kind of misery and abuse must Forgiveness suffer on its way, in order to wind up the bitter crabbed thing it is at the other end?
And how would things turn out if families were any less good at churning out forgiveness? What if families didn’t make so many mistakes, forgive so much so quickly and so easily? What if families were more stingy?
Maybe Forgiveness, not knowing what lies ahead on the road from Thanksgiving, really needs to leave the table with all of that extra indiscriminate supply for protection. If it were stripped down to exactly the proper legally and technically justifiable weight, poor old Forgiveness might not even make it out of the yard.
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And then what would be going on at the other end? We can sort of understand the politics and public life of today as a very beaten-up, travel-weary version of Forgiveness — what Forgiveness looks like when it finally gets there. But what if Forgiveness never had a chance, never even got out on the road?
Oh, that’s an ugly picture. That’s almost enough to make me forgive families for being so forgiving.
I still don’t know for sure what our role is, we commentators. I guess we just do the play-by-play. Folks, here comes Forgiveness around the corner. Ouch! That piano fell right out of a tall building on Forgiveness’ head! I think somebody from Ukraine shoved it. Wait, now. Amazing! Forgiveness is somehow getting back to its feet. Yes, folks, Forgiveness plods on indomitably!
We’re just doing our jobs. Frankly, I think you should forgive us.