Arrive Alive: The Fine Art of Family Holiday Survival

During my early years of queerdom I spent more holidays than I can count without getting a nervous twitch in my eye traveling from Philadelphia to Daytona Beach trek with my older sister, her husband and their two kidlets. The trip, often in a compact car, led to the Florida house that my mom shared with her husband at the time, a retired army colonel everyone including my mom, referred to as The Colonel.

The house was adorned with a wide assortment of dead animal skins on the floor and a number of historically significant weapons on the walls. It was a fun place. As we snaked down Interstate 95, past billboards for a Noted South Carolina Racist Attraction and others advertising “Carnivore Heaven Bar and Grill,” or “Agorama: The World’s First Agricultural Theme Park,” I would find myself sweating more with each passing mile. I would crane my head out the car window, scanning the highways for rainbow bumper stickers or any sign of Queer Life and remind myself of my mantra:

I CAN SURVIVE THE HOLIDAYS WITH MY FAMILYMany years and thousands of dollars of therapy later, I fancy myself a bit of an expert in the “let’s wrestle some fun out of this dysfunction” arena. And despite the warnings of my friends, therapist(s), exes and perhaps even my pets…CAT ADVICE BIGGERI have been known to sometimes spend winter holidays with my huge, alcoholic family of origin. I have tools now though, so don’t try this at home. Or if you must try this at (your) home, observe these important survival guidelines to decrease the statistical likelihood of family gatherings ending with tears or bloodshed:

SURVIVAL HINT 1: As much as possible, avoid the more intense family interactions associated with holiday group meals.

These meals can be a breeding ground for cutlery mishaps, eating disorder relapses and semi-drunken brawls. Taking a job such as firefighter, emergency medical technician, undertaker or nurse practically guarantees that you can always use the excuse, “I’m so sorry I can’t make it but [sigh] I have to work.” If your family insists on having holiday meals locally to accommodate your oh-so-busy schedule, clip your little cousin’s walkie talkie to your belt and explain you’re “on call.” Run out right after the turkey is served.

If you’re not able to excuse yourself, at the very least avoid coming out to your family in the midst of holiday meals. At least not spontaneously. That rush of warmth you thought you felt could just be heartburn from your aunt Sophie’s bacon and pepperoni dressing. The resulting indigestion you might experience would probably not be life-threatening, but could indeed feel like it.

In a pinch, you can also feign intestinal disorder that requires constant trips to the bathrooms. This is a fail-safe way of avoiding troublesome, boring or even insulting topics of conversation. For example, for many years every time my family gathered, my grandmother liked to tell the story about how lucky she was to have survived her bout with cancer, since the disease was caught at such a late stage.

“I didn’t go to the doctor right away about the pain in my side,” my grandma would explain, “because I thought I was just sore from carrying Kelli around. She was such a big fat baby.”

Silence.

“Hey,” my grandma would say, “where’s Kelli?”

FLUSH

You get the picture.

SURVIVAL HINT #2: Anticipate the end of a conversation before you initiate it.

One year I asked The Colonel over pumpkin pie if the bayonets mounted on the living room wall were real. “For chrisskaes yes,” he exclaimed, “what good is a bayonet if it’s never been used to kill anyone?” I learned something very important that day. If you can’t handle the answer, don’t ask the question.

PROTIP:  Did you know you can even prepare family friendly conversational prompts in advance?  For example, I have a slight suspicion my mother won’t want to hear about my accidental three-way at Atlanta Pride. But I’m sure she’ll love my stories about discovering drag culture in rural Wisconsin. Write these safe conversational topics on an index card if you can’t commit them to memory.

Is it a tad awkward to recite “Colonel, would you like to chat about the win to loss ratio of [insert name here], a local sports team?” Sure, but if the alternative is chatting about “those damn [insert name of random liberal group or endangered species],” it’s worth both the awkwardness and the effort. Studies have confirmed that the average queersexual can listen to only a limited number of anti-harp seal diatribes before going completely bananas.

SURVIVAL HINT ##3: Work with the family denial system, not against it.

Remember what you learned from the friendly neighborhood dyke lifeguard? If you’re caught in a rip tide, don’t try to swim out of it. The riptide is always stronger than you are, and you’ll tire yourself out before you can reach the beach. Swim parallel to a riptide. At some point a topographical feature on the shore will cause its strength to ebb and you’ll be able to break away.

This same principle applies when dealing with what could be called a “reduced truth” family situation. For example, my mom had a tubal ligation nineteen months before I was born. In the 60’s, the tubal ligation procedure involved only the clamping of the fallopian tubes, rather than actually severing them.

My brother, thinking I was already aware of this fact, mention it off-handedly at a Christmas gathering the year I turned thirty. I did some quick Internet research. According to a CDC report done over a ten year period from 1965 until 1975, out of the 365 post-tubal ligation women the CDC studied, 143 became pregnant at least once after the procedure. In other words, 1 in 155 tubal ligations were unsuccessful.

It seemed strange my mom had never mentioned my special status as a 1 in 155er. We weren’t a timid clan by any stretch of the imagination. One of the explicitly stated family rules was, “Remember kids, we don’t give each other the finger in front of grandma.” My biological father was of the genre of dads that thought great fun on a road trip involved farting and then locking the windows of the family station wagon. I couldn’t understand the silence over this simple medical fact. I decided to chat with my mom about this. The day after Christmas, I accompanied her on an early morning drive to pick up donuts for all the visiting relatives. I had only managed to say, “Mom, you could have told me about the tubal lig—” before my mom turned the steering wheel sharply to the right while simultaneously hitting the brakes. This sent the car skidding onto the gravel shoulder. “I can’t believe how close that car came to hitting us,” she said, genuinely breathless. It was 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning and we were driving on a deserted stretch of highway in rural Florida.

There was no car for miles.

I nodded and agreed that, indeed, who could believe how close that car came to hitting us. I can guess my mom’s motivation for not wanting me to know that she had tried very hard to prevent my birth. She was worried that if I knew the truth it would shatter my self-esteem. On the contrary, knowing the truth resolved a lot of questions I had, most notably, “Why did my parents have one more kid?” Also, knowing that I was a direct result of a super fierce-ass egg fighting its way through a banded fallopian tube filled me with indescribable joy.

Egg not shown actual size.

Egg not shown actual size.

It’s like being born with a protest sign in hand: “I AM here! And I AM queer! Guess we’re all going to have to get used to it!”

All the same I couldn’t resist tormenting my mother about this absurd situation just a bit.

For the next Christmas I may or may not have ordered her this tee shirt, directly from the Planned Parenthood website.

TUBAL LIGATION TEE SHIRTSee? Navigate within the confines of the family denial system, not against it.

Of course, if you’re bringing your partner along to spend some quality time with your family of origin, the ordeal becomes more complicated. Positive outcomes, however, are not impossible.

 SURVIVAL TIP #4:  Don’t introduce your partner to your family at a holiday gathering from which there is no easy escape.

Family vacations might be okay for first time partner-family introductins, if you’re going down the shore and can join the traveling carnival set up by the boardwalk if things get really out of control. But if you’re planning a winter Pocono weekend trip with your entire extended family, a single snowstorm could throw the whole interaction deep into the unmanageable zone.

SURVIVAL TIP # 5:  Warn your partner—if you so desire—about the little eccentricities of your family, but don’t expect to have warned them about the right things.

For example, because I!am both a registered nurse and a registered worrywart, I am known amongst my friends as “Safety Monitor Dyke.” Back in the day, I was frequently (and inexplicably) the only person who brought a fire extinguisher to the Lesbian Avengers’ flame eating demonstrations.

One Christmas my partner watched my cousins (who had each polished off a six pack of Old Milwaukee) head into the woods, chainsaws and axes in hand. She turned to me with a stunned expression “what are they doing?” I replied, “chopping firewood, guess.” She was completely horrified by this blatant affront to personal safety, but I was completely accustomed to it.

SURVIVAL TIP #6: Consider carefully your partner’s view of your family. Their objectivity may shed light into some very dark corners.

For example, in the past ten years I!have been involved in many useless arguments about the souls of cartoon characters. This is because at some point during every holiday gathering, my oldest sister authoritatively announces, “Smurfs are a satanic force from hell.”

NOT SMURG

“No,” I would say, “the Smurfs are merely annoying. There is no evidence they are a satanic force from hell.”

After this heated exchange one year, my partner asked if I might “perhaps choose battles a little more wisely?” Although I was initially resistant, I realized she did have a point. After all, who appointed me Executive Director of the Cartoon Characters Defense League? Nowadays, I let the little blue bastards take care of themselves.

Which brings me to…

SURVIVAL TIP # 7:  Accept that there is only so much reality you can interject into any given conversation.

Two Christmastimes ago, my mom once insisted, as she ladled gravy onto my sister’s mashed potatoes, that the technician from the nail salon where she has her nails done reported that she “feared for her life” after Obama elected.

I made the mistake of asking why.

Because, said my mom, “people were fornicating on the streets.”

Why would people fornicate on the streets?Is it possible that happiness at the outcome of an election results in a desire to have sex in public? For a group of people? For anyone?

How did the nail tech know this and even if it were true, why would it make her afraid for her life?

I didn’t ask any of these questions. The gap between sense and nonsense was just too wide.

Instead I simply observed “Mom, you should not be getting your nails done by the KKK” and let it go at that.

FINALLY, TIP # 9: Refrain from responding to your partner’s requests to pass the mashed potatoes with “Yes Mistress.”

Especially if you would normally do so within the privacy of your own home.

Just trust me on this one.

———

This cornucopia of dubious advice is excerpted and slightly adapted from Kelli’s book of humorous and essays FREAK OF NURTURE. If you’d like to read more about Kelli’s family, her life as a nun or her ability to blow air out through the bottom of her eyes, read some more excerpts from FREAK OF NURTURE here and then order your own paperback or ebook.

If you’d like to read some genuinely helpful and somewhat less sarcastic advice about techniques to get through the Holidays, check out Bevin Branlandingham’s A GREAT WAY TO DEAL WITH YUCKY FEELINGS: EMOTIONAL FREEDOM AKA TAPPING.

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Coming soon: Kelli Dunham’s first ever ecourses!

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Sunday morning in the convent, mostly in pictures

What I missed most:

Really. I would salivate as people walked by carrying bagels and the Sunday NYT. The bagels I could live without. The NYT made my heart ache.

Really. I would salivate as people walked by carrying bagels and the Sunday NYT. The bagels I could live without. The NYT made my heart ache.

What I was supposed to be doing:

Worrying about hell

Worrying about hell

And also:

This is supposed to represent "praying" not "being a creepy figurine"

This is supposed to represent “praying” not “being a creepy figurine”

And therefore spending more time:

"Examination of Conscience" = list of sins. Sometimes it gave me ideas. "Oh yeah, haven't done that yet"

“Examination of Conscience” = list of sins. Sometimes it gave me ideas. “Oh yeah, haven’t done that yet”

Instead I was always:

Talking when I was supposed to be praying

Talking when I was supposed to be praying

And daydreaming about:

Sharing Cheetos with pretty women showing cleavage.

Sharing Cheetos with pretty women showing cleavage.

Do you want to hear the full nun story? You should probably read Freak of Nurture. If you want do the ebook thing, you can have it in your hands/on your screen 60 seconds from now.