Because I had lost both parents and grandparents (and, effectively, all three sisters) by my teens, I had grown used to orphan holidays where a bunch of miscellaneous strays pool their resources, stuff a bird, and make it work. I was an adult before I had any idea how many of us are in that same boat—how rare it is for people to have the perfect, symmetrical family: a dad, a mom, a boy, a girl, a cat, a dog. What's more, feeling out of it, I was slow to understand that every now and then it was no disadvantage to be spared the fallout of the well-named nuclear family.

I have been invited to the holidays of my friends' families where ancient slights and misunderstandings threaten to resurface the minute the brandy hits the eggnog. In those situations, it's nice to have an outsider at the table as a buffer. People feel obliged to practice some restraint. And I have always been a grateful guest because I love the holiday and the container that family provides even when it's not my own.

But here's my Christmas gift. I have my own family, after all. And what a splendid family I turned out to have: My nephew, whose father is Mexican, with that proud Aztec lift to his cheekbones. And yet another niece with smooth dark skin, rich as Belgian chocolate, and a husband who can diagnose and heal cars. My half sister, with her peachy complexion, got Daddy's eyes, green as shamrocks. She married a great guy—a science teacher, bringing knowledge of constellations as well as the warmth and wit that accompany growing up in New York City. In addition to having the gumption to summon us all and turn her home into a Christmas wonderland for this variegated tribe, my nephew's young wife brought her proper Italian grandmother—the kind who makes gnocchi by hand. Another nephew, who carried all the family traits including girth, a sharp head for business, and an original way with a recipe, arrived with his Japanese girlfriend, who settled on the couch with that self-containment I used to employ when overwhelmed in a bubbling, boisterous familial mass.

Beyond any doubt, this was the most astonishing gathering I had ever attended. My oldest sister was there, returned to me, not angry after all that I'd written about our family, but eager to share her own earliest memories. She's a woman who also knows that the proper pronunciation of the word "creek" is "crik."

And because it was brand new, I realized what a pristine opportunity was at hand—I got to have a family with none of the bad stuff. I started thinking about what I'd learned over the years visiting other families. You know what I mean—that slight 24 years ago that led Aunt Petal to stop speaking to Sister Blossom. Sitting there, I understood I had been handed a gift few ever have—connection without all the baggage. What would it take, I wondered, to retain and nourish this precious climate? I came up with a couple of tips to survive and preserve your own holiday reunions.


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