Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:
My mother, sister, and I are planning a vacation in the Caribbean
together, despite the disaster that occurred two years ago when we
tried to have fun and set a new record for bad family time. It was six
days of hell, dominated by too much drinking followed by endless
fighting between my mother and sister, mostly over events from our
childhood that I cannot believe they still bear grudges over. It took
three months for them to get over the last trip, and lots of intervention
from me. I’ve tried talking to each of them to prepare them to be kind
and playful instead of backbiting and ready for a scrap. Each has
promised “to be on my best behavior,” “to avoid bringing up the past,”
and to avoid escalating any minor arguments that may occur into
World War III. But I’ve not only seen this show before, I’m the
peacemaker who’s expected to pick up the pieces and patch
everything together, while they’re allowed to squabble like angry two-
year olds. I’m tired of being the responsible adult. I do love them and
would like to have a good trip, because my mother is 75 and not
getting any younger. Can you make it possible?

Dear Referee:
There are several triggers in your letter. Alcohol exacerbates many negative
behaviors, and certainly lowers inhibitions about saying things that are better left
unsaid. A history of fighting, with a parallel history of relying on someone else to
make everything copacetic after the fighting, means that neither of the problem
children has to take full responsibility for her behavior. Frankly, I think you’re
either heroic or slightly nuts to volunteer for this exercise, but maybe you need a
vacation more than you fear a repeat of the prior trip.

Draw up a list of agreements for them each to sign. No email or voice. In writing.
It should include a list of topics they will not discuss under any circumstances
(and a code word, something blatant like “Snowshoe!!” or “Cactus!!” that you’ll be
authorized to invoke if they stray into the forbidden. Also a commitment to limit
themselves to a reasonable number of drinks, and a specific list of steps they will
agree to take if anything escalates. Have a one on one with each of them. Ask              them to sign the document. Tell each of them the same thing: If you violate this
agreement, I am not going to bail you out. I am going to grab my bag and my suit
and head for the pool. You two will have to work this out and I am not going to
save you. If necessary I’ll rent a different room and not spend time with you. If
you cannot keep this a good time, please do not leave home. They may not
believe you, and it will be up to you to make it stick, perhaps by leaving the room
once or twice. But if you do walk out on them during a fight, they’ll let the
message loud and clear.