...and not necessarily who you want them to be.
Once upon a time, we got our ideas about reality from sermons, books and our elders, be those elders our mothers, our teachers or our superiors at work. Now most people get their ideas about reality from the television and the internet. Imagine if everyone in the West spent as much time in prayer and serious reading as we do watching television. That would be something.
That said, I got my ideas about family from books, and the principal book about a family that set my expectations of reality was Louisa Mae Alcott's Little Women. And in Little Women, the father is so WISE and the mother is so KIND and, even though the family is so POOR, Meg has to work as an upper servant (i.e. governess) and Jo as a professional companion to awful old Aunt March, they have a housekeeper. Jo and Amy have their clashes, but they are resolved and even when Amy gets what Jo ought to have had (in more instances than one!), instead of resenting this her whole life long, Jo is very understanding.
Little Women is a romance about the Alcott Family's life, so the reality will shock the stuffing out of anyone who thinks Little Women is real. First of all, the Marches/Alcotts were Unitarians and didn't believe in the divinity of Our Lord. Second, no Fritz came along to shame Louisa Mae/Jo out of writing penny dreadfuls, for she continued churning them out. Third, Bronson Alcott, who in Little Women seemed to be a sort of Methodist minister, started a commune so dire, Marmee dearest threatened to take the girls and go.
A re-write of Little Women to reflect their actual reality would be AWESOME! And there would even be a Polish angle because Louisa claims Laurie was based on a Pole named "Ladislav." (Has anyone done this yet?) All this said, I still think Louisa Mae Alcott is a great model for the contented Single Life, as long as you don't get entirely wrapped up in your father and die within two days of him.
My point is that if you get your idea of Ideal Family Life from television or 19th century children's fiction or Ralph Lauren adverts, you are naturally going to be disappointed with your own family. Time after time you return to the nest to discover that, although a bit of distance has done you good, they have not changed very much. You like what you liked before, and you are exasperated by whatever exasperated you before, and it may take you awhile to adjust to the family rhythms, if you can. Personally, I love going home to Mum and Dad. Although I am startled by the noise (human and television) at first, I enjoy the routines, the orderliness and the laundry system. Visits to my married brother are similarly noisy (human and toy) but fun and bracing. Oh, now I'm getting homesick. Wah.
I am fortunate in that I know exactly what my family is like, and I know that as families go mine is amazingly blessed, and I have no irrational expectations of perfection. Although we have our challenges, we are not dysfunctional, and I would LOVE to go home for Canadian Thanksgiving and/or Christmas, if it weren't so darned expensive. (I try to tempt my family over here, but they also find it darned expensive.)
But that's me. Some of you come from dysfunctional families, and go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, hoping it will be better this year, and it never is. And my question for reflection is "Why go then?"
I have in my mind's eye a teary-eyed 50-something woman who keeps hoping year after year that her maternal and filial love and cooking will bring the whole family around the table where they will be delightful and humorous without being drunken or quarrelsome, even though drunken and quarrelsome is generally what they are. Time after time, she summons the same chemical mixture to her dining-room or kitchen and then weeps when, yet again, the house blows up. Her magic talisman, her Single daughter, did not work after all to avert the catastrophe, and she feels betrayed. So naturally she takes it out on her Single daughter, because if you can't take out your disappointment on your own daughter, whom CAN you take it out on?
If this sounds like your own mother, you may want to have a blunt conversation with her over the phone before you go home. Once you are grown up (particularly if you are no longer a financial dependent), you are in a position of strength vis-a-vis your elders' dysfunctions. You can say things like, "About Thanksgiving. I'm tired of the drunken free-for-all that happens after the pie, and this year, just so you know, I am leaving the minute the men start on the whisky. I've suffered through seeing my relations at their worst for twenty years, and I won't do it again. I'll go straight to the kitchen to wash the dishes, and then I'm going out."
Another option is to not go home at all, which will torpedo in advance your mother's or grandmother's fantasy that this year will be different, and she will have the Perfect Family Dinner. This may seem like an extreme measure, but I assure you it is physically possible. What you say is, "In light of the fact that two years ago A, B and C happened, and one year ago, X, Y, and Z happened, I will not be attending Thanksgiving Dinner this year." Then you don't.
In this scenario A,B,C, X,Y and Z are examples of real abuse, be it verbal, emotional, psychological or physical, either to you or to someone you love. You don't deserve abuse, and you don't deserve to see someone you love abused. If there is any likelihood that this is what you will suffer if you go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, then please don't go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. You may have friends in your own town who would love to have you for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, especially if they are Single or childless, and apparently many people find great contentment in serving Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner to the homeless. You might even book a room in the guest house of a monastery for the weekend, and enjoy the peace and the food for the soul.
Update: What I said in 2010.