Kirsten Mustain

A few days ago I had the privilege of judging a local essay contest.

Area high school students were asked to write essays about their families for “Family Appreciation Month,” which was in October.

Seeing what some of these young people had to say about their parents, siblings, and extended families was touching. Even though the teen years are generally a time of angst and unrest, many students had positive and understanding things to say about the people who are raising them.

Had I been asked to write a similar essay during my teen years, it might not have been so sweet.

In fact, it would not have been fit to print.

Sentimentality and kindness were not my strong suits at 17.

My feelings at the time were filtered through a fog of immaturity and confusion. They were not entirely unjustified, but they were not tempered with reason or understanding.

The holidays used to be especially trying.

I would do anything to keep from going home. Once I even spent Christmas at a bowling alley with some errant friends, dining on cheeseburgers and fries and playing pinball late into the night.

I didn’t emerge from this bank of dark clouds until I was well into my 20s.

In my travels I have known friends who were separated from their families because their families could not accept them as they were. These people were alone in the world, but had, nevertheless, constructed new families made up of close friends and community members.

People need families. When blood relatives are not available, simpatico companions with different blood will do.

I will never forget one of the last Thanksgivings I spent away from my parents.

I was seated at a long table with a group of warm and wonderful people enjoying a good meal that didn’t taste like Thanksgiving food at all because my mother hadn’t cooked it.

The woman next to me was telling us the reason why she couldn’t go home for the holidays anymore. Her parents were Catholic, and she had recently told them she was a Buddhist. They had told her that they would pray for her, but they could not condone the “Buddhist Agenda.” She was uncertain what that meant, precisely (“What agenda,” she asked. “world peace?”) but apparently it was considered nefarious enough by her parents that they told her she was no longer welcome in their home.

It incensed me that supposed followers of Christ, such as myself, could be cruel and close-minded enough to banish their own daughter for having a differing viewpoint.

My parents would have never done such a thing. If I were a Godless murdering cannibal with purple hair and a foul disposition, I am certain my mother would still want me to come home for Thanksgiving and my father would still be glad to hear my voice when I called him on the phone.

Sometimes it takes me a while to see things that are right in front of me.

In my ignorance, I thought it might console my friend if I told her that spending time with family wasn’t always the most peaceful or easiest way to celebrate the holidays.

I described the chaos of 20 people all talking about each other at the same time; the complete lack of privacy; the discomfort of sharing a sofa bed with cousins and sisters; the practical jokes played on those unlucky enough to sleep late; the unsolicited advice; the cutthroat card games – in short, the sheer pandemonium and indignity of intimacy with a group of intense, opinionated, and eccentric personalities.

She blinked at me uncomprehendingly.

“Wow,” she said. “My family would never be able to stay under one roof like that without ripping each other’s throats out, and I don’t even know most of my cousins.”

This Thanksgiving, as we face a time of national crisis, perhaps it is a better time than ever to consider the things we have to be thankful for. We of the human family have each other, and maybe we aren’t all the easiest people to get along with, but we are connected all the same.

Whether your family is made up of blood relatives, close friends, or friendly acquaintances this holiday season, count your blessings.

Me, I will join my sister, my brother, my niece, my cousins, my uncles, my aunts, and an assortment of others at my mother and step-father’s Afton home for a joyful and memorable holiday with the people whom I love the most.

There will be a 20 people talking about each other at the same time; a complete lack of privacy; food that is my idea of “real” Thanksgiving fare; boisterous teasing; political arguments; practical jokes; unsolicited advice, and cutthroat pitch games galore. And I will be truly thankful to be so blessed.