My family’s Thanksgiving disaster

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By: Brenda Murphy

Thanksgiving 2017. My house buzzed with chattering voices. Two dining-room tables butted together to accommodate five sons and wives. A half-sized table awaited six small grandchildren.

We lit candles. Mountains of food graced the buffet/serving table, aromas intoxicating. We shared a prayer of praise and thanksgiving for our many blessings. Thus began what I expected to be another Thanksgiving filled with joy and laughter. Our tradition.

It was not to be. Toward the end of the meal, conversation turned to politics. I tensed.

We homeschooled our sons. Our educational philosophy rested on strong critical thinking skills, superior literacy skills, adherence to Biblical principles, and commitment to our nation’s foundational doctrines of liberty and freedom. However, two of our son’s political leanings veered left, two remained conservative/libertarian, one somewhere in the middle. Their diverging political views fueled volatile clashes. My husband and I saw it coming, yet were powerless to divert the storm that nearly wrenched our close-knit family apart.

First, an offhand comment, said under the breath, with a furtive glance. The remark demanded a jabbing retort. Suddenly, one son pushed his chair back, standing to his feet, glaring and yelling. A daughter returned the glare as potent as her barrage of words holding the opposite position. Before we knew it, cordial Thanksgiving conversation devolved into a cacophony of voices—some yelling, others begging for calm.

One son stormed out followed by another, then all the boys were gone, leaving their wives in shock, grappling with what happened, what to do. One pregnant wife burst into tears, ran outside, searching for her husband. She collapsed, sobbing, onto a low brick wall in the front yard. Their 2-year-old daughter stood protectively beside her, patting her hand, repeating, “It’s going to be okay, Mommie. It’s going to be okay.”  

Eventually, my sons returned, avoiding eye contact with anyone. Soberly, matter-of-factly, each hugged his wife and children and said sadly, “Let’s go home.”

And, they did—packing up diaper bags, Pack-N-Plays, empty dishes, and leftovers. One by one they pulled away. No parting man-hugs, see-ya-laters, or honking horns.

Thanksgiving 2017 was over. The house eerily quiet. I straightened up, discovering forgotten stuffed animals, teeny-tiny socks, a well-loved blanket surely to be missed by bedtime. I clutched the blanket, running my fingers along its trim, feeling small rips and tears. Was my close-knit family beginning to fray as well? Would the cavernous political differences that erupted with such vitriol irreparably wrench apart our deep bonds of love and shared life experiences?

I cried, and put it aside as much as I could.

Several weeks later, scrolling aimlessly through Facebook, a headline caught my eye. “What was your Thanksgiving like?” it asked.

I chortled. I must not be the only one.

It was a Better Angels ad (Braver Angels’ original name) about how to depolarize our country’s—and families’—increasingly injurious political divide.

I signed up for emails. Soon I received Nashvillian Lynn Heady’s email about other Tennesseans who showed interest in BA. I loved the organization’s vision, hope, and proactive initiatives. I loved seeing We the People, regardless of race, culture, or politics, sitting and standing, shoulder to shoulder, seeking a better way to reunite this country.

I paid my dues! In February 2020 before COVID-19, I experienced my first in-person BA event—a Red/Blue Workshop in Knoxville. I shy away from political conversations to avoid inevitable conflict, yet I found myself less intimidated than I thought with the Braver Angels format and methodology. The one-on-one breakout on Second-Amendment/gun rights surprised me. My Blue-leaning partner held stronger Second-Amendment/Gun Rights stances than I did.

Since then, I have attended and participated in online events, workshops, debates; joined my local East Tennessee Alliance and the Rural/Small-town Dweller’s Alliance, developed a friendship with a Blue from Massachusetts, read newsletters from Braver Angels leaders, and so much more.

I apply my Braver Angels skills in family gatherings—not perfectly—often with baby steps. Sometimes I regress to old behaviors. (I kick myself afterwards!) Yet, I see a difference.

The 2018 and 2019 Thanksgivings were convivial. Intentionally so. Memories of 2017 maintained their hold on everyone; an undercurrent of tension kept topics from wandering into the political arena. Not so at other gatherings. Tempers have flared, doors slammed, and one or two disappeared into the night.

I still have hope. I believe that one Thanksgiving, the rapidly growing Murphy clan will gather around the table, laden with mouth-watering foods, politics no longer a taboo topic. From lessons learned from Braver Angels, we will know how to exchange our differing ideas and perspectives on the world we live in without anger, discord, or division.

Brenda is a wife and mother to 5 sons, 5 daughters-in-law, and 10 grandchildren; a founding member of the East Tennessee Braver Angels Alliance; an educational psychologist; and a devotee to holidays that bring families together—despite what’s tearing them apart…

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