Listen to the strange folks at home

November 21, 1995|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- We are in the kitchen running the numbers. It's our annual prep course at Thanksgiving Central where we major in list-making. The final count: 21 people, two tables, 19 chairs, one piano bench, 21 napkins, and 63 pieces of silverware -- if you include the two spoons mangled in the disposal.

My husband goes to the cupboard to add up the glasses -- 18 that match and half a dozen orphans. I subtract the napkins still missing from our annual roundup -- one polka-dot square unaccounted for, three plain ones disappeared.

Numbers on the brain

These numbers accumulate in my brain until I begin to feel as if I were compiling one of those statistical portraits they run in the newspaper under the heading: Thanksgiving 1995.

I imagine next a statistical chart describing the people who will fill those 21 seats. A numerical profile of one Very Extended American Family:

Geography: five area codes.

Countries of Origin: six to ten ethnic groups, depending on how you define them.

Age: from single digits to the 90s.

Religion: two to four, depending upon how you figure denominations and whether you include ''none of the above.''

Marital Status: single, married, divorced, remarried, widowed.

Occupations: two teachers and one artist, two lawyers, three who work in sales and three who work in words.

Thanksgiving Eating Habits: two vegetarians, half a dozen white meat-eaters, more drumstick lovers than drumsticks, four who will, of their own volition, eat the string bean casserole, 15 devotees of lemon pie, 3 attitudes toward gravy.

This is how we add up for Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, the one bequeathed to us by another splinter group -- the 17th-century immigrants who left one continent and community for another, newer world.

Running these numbers on this changing clan of 21, it occurs to me that we get a different message now about the new world. Today, we are told that America is threatened by diversity. It's said routinely, automatically, that this is an impossibly

fractured country, subdivided along a dozen fault lines, with people unable to talk across the fences of our differences.

If you read numbers on public opinions, our diversity sounds like a formula for disaster. The only belief Americans hold in common is that we have little in common. We are sure we've lost the ability to form communities larger than a single-person household.

The very people who worry about living in a centrifuge often sound nostalgic for a familial model of society. A mom-and-pop-store America.

Indeed, the image of family itself in the great, endless family-values debate is almost invariably a homogeneous one. The ideal families are single units, held together by some natural umbilical bond, an effortless affinity. They are families that exhibit the easy togetherness of birds of a feather.

Politics to pumpkin pie

Well, maybe some families are like that. Maybe there are families where all the members truly agree -- not pretend to agree, but actually agree -- on everything from politics to pumpkin pie. Families that think and act as one.

There are others where homogeneity is enforced by fiat and everyone plays follow the leader. There are everybody-must-have-spinach families where those who cannot eat off the same life menu find themselves unwelcome.

But the families that I have known are no more homogeneous than the individuality of their members. Whatever similarities of blood or background, there are as many differences within families as between them. They are in fact our earliest models of diversity.

In families, our children first struggle with the need to be themselves and to belong. At the kitchen table, we first find out if we can be accepted as who we are and still be connected to others.

When families work

When families work, they acknowledge individuality, make room for difference, weave family stories out of eccentricities. When families work, the members make a commitment to stay at the table.

So it seems to me, the best hope, the best training ground, for a country as diverse as ours is not in the homogeneous poster family of our nostalgia. It's in real families where we first learn to live together with our differences. Where we teach each other and hear each other.

Run the numbers any way you want in a country worried about fractions and long division. This season, I am drawn most optimistically to the family gatherings where we can fill our plates according to our own palates and still satisfy the appetite for togetherness. In this America, there is always room for one more at the table.


Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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