by Katie Gach and Lora Cox, yes together, making our mom so proud
Katie: When I first asked my sister about writing this blog post with me, she responded exactly how I expected: with an articulate monologue that questioned the very premise of the conversation.
Lora: I’m offended by the title. It’s our America.
Katie: That’s typical of our conversations: questions upon questions. I am a liberal academic, and my sister is a #NeverTrump Republican. I research and write in the admittedly-left-leaning ivory tower, and she’s been a GOP congressional staffer for years. But we talk almost every day, and we love each other fiercely. We learned that from our family––the very family we are about to spend the holidays with.
Considering our differences, you may think we’d have a “No Politics” rule. But, especially this year, it’s too important to not talk about what’s happening. We should not pretend that things are normal and fine.
At the end of the day, we come from the same place, we have the same blood in our veins, and our stories are rooted in the same people. That is worth holding onto. My sister and I have watched our family members discuss and disagree and love each other for decades. We wrote this together to share some perspective and practical suggestions for accomplishing that.*
Lora: I sincerely hope Thanksgiving and other family gatherings are not the only time we break bread with members of different parties. If that’s the case, I better understand the shock of this year’s election results. Maybe that’s why we’re seeing people insist that if you vote differently from them, you voted against what they voted for and there’s no other explanation. Is that why we struggle to recognize the complex issues other voters processes before casting a ballot?
Katie: So, how can we possibly bridge that gap over turkey?
Lora: Allow me a history nerd moment and I’ll get there.
Thanksgiving wasn’t officially a holiday until the middle of the Civil War. President Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” The American people of 1863 had already endured notably bloody battles at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Franklin. A few days before the first official Thanksgiving, the Battle of Chattanooga erupted, paving the way for Sherman’s March to the Sea. (That’s the part in Gone with the Wind where Atlanta burns and Rhett helps Scarlett flee to Tara.)
Yet the Thanksgiving proclamation was issued and honored. In the darkest days of the Civil War, the President asked the American people to pause and give thanks for what was good.
Katie: Let’s bring it back to now. It’s safe to say Lincoln’s political party is no more, so the least we can do for him is keep this holiday alive. How are we going to do that?
Lora: Perhaps this is a good time to ask relatives about Thanksgiving 1968. What did they discuss over turkey and pumpkin pie after seven Republican and five Democratic candidates sought their respective parties nominations for President? The sitting President dropped out of the race that March, and another candidate was assassinated in June. Just as they are now, Americans were debating far more than which candidate’s policies were preferred. The people of 1968 came to vastly different conclusions on what the election represented, the most pressing issues facing the world, if specific policies were the best approach to the issues, or if voting for someone who represented their ideals best served America.
Katie: This seems familiar…
Lora: Doesn’t it? People were grieving the deaths of loved ones in the jungles of Vietnam, processing the sexual revolution, states rights, law & order vs. racial issues… then they went to the polls.
With that in mind, here are some things I’ll be asking our older relatives: How did families engage at Sunday lunch and then Thanksgiving a few weeks later? Did those more emotionally invested in the election refuse to attend? Did anyone come with notecards from their favorite news outlets ready to stand up to disagreeable relatives?
How did this election affect World War II and Korean war veterans? What did it mean to them when they watched news broadcasts of war medals being thrown over the White House fence to chants of Hey, Hey LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?
Our family doesn’t have home videos of Thanksgiving in 1968, but the two of us can sum up the Thanksgivings we’ve been part of for about 30 years. Our heritage represents a broad political spectrum. Our relatives have lived through contentious, unsettling times in American history. Certainly some relative’s blood pressure was raised by Iran Contra, Read my Lips, No New Taxes or President Clinton’s impeachment trial. As children we surely heard them talk about these things, but we don’t remember words; we remember how they listened, empathized, and expressed concern for individuals.
The U.S. Embassy in Beirut was bombed the year before Lora was born. Perhaps there were stronger opinions expressed in the moment as our uncle, a Navy medic, was stationed in the area and responded to the bombing. Our grandmother carefully preserved news coverage, so the story could be told years later. That story contained no commentary on international politics, but how proud they were of our uncle. “He saw very hard things and came home safe.” They stayed on message: that family is bigger than what whirls in the world around us.
Thanksgiving and Christmas fill us in on our grandmother’s penchant for providing directions to the grocery store when asked to provide a recipe, and stories of our great aunt’s love for creating beauty. Memories of our late paternal grandfather’s boisterous storytelling and jokes are part of our connection to a time now gone. As an adult, I (Lora) remember those Thanksgiving afternoons vividly when I hear myself reply with a witty zinger.
It’s an ongoing work to keep families together as generations multiply. Our people stick to passing on the stuff that transcends parochial politics, a country’s borders, and whether we live in a representative democracy, a monarchy, or a banana republic. The annals of our family history ensure the next generation knows how fiercely each one is loved.
Katie: I’m proud that that love has held strong through so much: unplanned pregnancies, people coming out of the closet, divorces, religious conversions, Bobby Knight basketball…
Lora: So when we bring our children to Thanksgiving with family, they will leave with that same experience. It will be one of many occasions firmly fixing into their brain’s core: “We loved you then. We love you now. You are part of something bigger than you.” We’ll all get tossed around by the storms of the world throughout our lives, but we know this thing that is true, that can’t be changed as the world burns.
All of this might seem like useless fluff if you’re headed into your holiday stewing because of how your relatives voted. But there will be pie! Grab two pieces and keep your mouth full so you can listen. You’ll learn a lot about where your loved ones are coming from and what they’ve learned in life, even if the election doesn’t come up.
Katie: But if it does? I recommend that you enter with humility, and with permission. Ask if you can dive into a subject, but only if you’re ready to “go high” if they “go low.” [Citation: Michelle Obama] On the other hand, you’re allowed to decline talking about something if you’re really not ready to.
Lora: Right. You don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to.
Katie: So focus on understanding. Offer to explain your perspective, or ask for help seeing what they see.
I’ve often heard that mental health professionals recommend approaching touchy subjects with questions like this:
“I’m hearing you say ______, is that what you mean?”
“When you do/say ______, I feel ______.”
These constructs keep emotions at the center for a good reason. It is impossible to remove emotion from interactions with family. All the research you can do in the next 10 days won’t change anyone’s mind. And as Lora pointed out above, it’s not the purpose of the gathering. So arm yourself with stories, not memes––
Lora: Joe Biden memes are always on the table.
Katie: YES, Uncle Joe is always invited. But no articles or heresay, your own personal stories.
The best we can hope for is to see each other more clearly, and then to be able to love each other more fully.** As sisters with almost nothing in common except this family, we have learned to thrive on questions that bring a greater perspective.
Too many people have nowhere to go on Thanksgiving; they weren’t born into a circle of love and faith that spans generations. We both feel that so deeply that we independently wrote a version of this in our first drafts: Even if your relative is just so wrong and just doesn’t “get it”, they love you. They loved you before your brain could develop political beliefs and they’ll love you regardless of how you vote. That’s something to be thankful for.
*As sisters, we have really sucked at this in the past. It takes tons of time and apologies and tears. Just a warning.
**It must be said that some people are not in a position to enter these conversations with love. Some relationships can turn toxic, and sometimes people are intentionally hurtful. Assume good intentions, but you know your family members, and you know yourself. Set boundaries. Stay healthy.