My favorite dish at our holiday dinners never has anything to do with food. It’s the savory conversations that I crave. The heartfelt chatter of close family and friends enhances each occasion like a special mix of spices. Salty. Sweet. Sometimes a little nutty.
“I have to admit…”
“Are you kidding me?”
It’s always been that way for me. Growing up, food never took center stage at holiday get togethers. People did. Both young and old were encouraged to perform. No experience required.
Conversation effortlessly bounced around our dinner table like a colorful balloon kept afloat in a crowd. The gabfest continued long after leftovers turned cold and candles burned low. (My mother repeatedly assured us that the dishes “could wait.”)
When the youngest grew too fidgety to stay seated, they were excused to play–under the table, of course. Toy trucks then traveled over shoes and shins. Little engine noises revving and fading to match the comforting rhythm of laughter and love drifting down from above.
Although unscripted, holiday conversations contributed more useful curriculum than any school text ever could. Want to practice the art of persuasion? Try convincing your mom, dad, aunt, and uncle to let your cousins spend the night. Interested in lively debate? Take a position on tattoos (pro or con) as you dig into the sweet potato soufflé. Religion and politics? Bring it on with second helpings.
Power versus push mowers? Only if you dare.
We kids’ absorbed the rules of communication just by being present. Make eye contact. Pay attention to body language. Listen before you speak.
Then there was the issue of style. From quiet humor to steady peacemaker, each persona had a skilled delivery. Smart sarcasm was my personal favorite, but it was a punishing apprenticeship to assume.
Of course, the real magic went beyond mechanics. As the words flowed between us, little bits of wit and wisdom filled up different needs in each of us. Stories told with misty eyes defined such things as resilience and empathy—without even mentioning the words. New ideas mingled with cherished tradition. In the process, motivation and purpose were sometimes redefined.
One year my grandmother decided to predict her grandchildren’s occupations. She moved quickly through the group. Doctor. Lawyer. Architect. Grown-ups and children all nodded in agreement at our dear matriarch’s keen assessments.
Then Nana got to me—and paused.
I remember feeling frozen in time. With mounting dread, I wondered if I was the unredeemable kid of the clan.
Then the magic happened. She looked me directly in the eyes and said in the most heartfelt, loving voice.
“Katie, you can be anything you want to be.”
To this day, I remember the impact of those words sinking deeply into my soul. I believed her. And, truth be told, her words have guided me through critical career pivots my entire life.
Did I mention how much I love what I do? It would be no surprise to my Nana, I’m sure.
So as holiday lists begin to grow, consider adding the intentional gift of holiday gab. Meaningful conversations (emphasis on the meaningful) don’t require skill but they do require time. They can’t be forced. Rather, they incubate as thoughtful comments mixed in with everyday banter until a certain word or phrase flips a switch to make a real connection.
Once unleashed, the influence of meaningful conversations can never be predicted. But rest assured, they have the potential to grow into superpowers that can mend fences, cure loneliness, inspire action, and change lives.
Not bad for something you don’t even have to wrap!
Kate Jerome is the author and series creator of Arcadia Kids new interactive children’s books series Lucky to Live in…which is recommended as a “give your personal best” selection in Parents Magazine’s 2017 Holiday Gift Guide. A seasoned publishing executive, award-winning children’s book author, and a recent Fellow in Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute, Kate is a passionate supporter of intergenerational communication. Follow her on Twitter and learn more about her latest series at katejerome.com