You Won’t Appreciate Going Home for the Holidays Until You Can’t

On the impermanence of home, and what happens when we lose it

Photo: KimJane Photography/Getty Images

“Seeking to forget makes exile all the longer; the secret of redemption lies in remembrance.” — Richard von Weizsäcker

In 2016, I sold my dream house within a month of my divorce. How lucky to have lived in a “dream house,” and how unlucky to have the marriage and family come to an end.

Actually, it’s hyperbole and a bit of a misnomer to say it was unlucky to sell the house. It was prudent to sell the house, both financially and physically. (The yard itself was almost an acre. I had to ride a tractor to mow it. I could barely start the thing and would cry once I got going, dripping with sweat and overwhelmed with the care of so much: children, animals, and a large, very old house.)

But in selling the house, I risked something, and in some sense lost something that was of great value to me. A home.

It wasn’t the first time this had happened to me.

“When you are done with school, I am done with you.”

This is something my dad said to me in what I now know to be a pivotal and dark moment in our family history. I’m not sure what I did or said to prompt such a statement. It wasn’t the usual way we talked to one another. I was a college senior. Maybe I conveyed some lackadaisical ease or entitlement. It was Christmas break before my college graduation in May. He sat up in bed, beside my mom, watching the news. I’d just gotten home from being out with friends. When he said it, I was taken aback. There was something in his tone, his expression. I took him very, very seriously.

I didn’t know that as he said this, his marriage was crumbling. He knew it, but I didn’t. Perhaps he feared for the future.

I don’t know if my dad remembers that moment or not. To him, it may have been a passing aggravation — something he said offhandedly as we parents do when we’re angry with our kids. But for me, it became the moment after which nothing felt the same.

Along with their marriage, what ended in the subsequent several years was the place and time I knew as home.

A vintage Christmas card

The home I came from was a powerful place. Maybe more than that, the myth of the home I came from was a powerful place, and my parents loomed mythically in my mind. My father was a bit of a rebel in his teen years. He wrecked a convertible and nearly died along with his date when he was 16. (You can still see gravel in his side from where he was thrown from the car and skidded down the road.) Yet, he made good. Brought his grades up, attended a prestigious university. He became president of his fraternity. Married my mom — a tall redhead with wavy hair, who didn’t know how beautiful she was. Their sorority and fraternity composites — poster size — hung on the stairway wall to our basement when I was a small child. Dad attended law school and learned he passed the bar exam on the day I was born. Mom stayed home with me after having taught elementary school during the law school years. The baby, born four years after me — on Thanksgiving Day, was just what I wanted in a sibling. A sister.

My dad’s career was successful. When I was in fifth grade, we moved to a big house in a beautiful subdivision. All the kids were welcome in our home. As I grew into a teen, my friends loved to come over and eat homemade meals and gobble up chocolate chip cookies. My parents hugged and kissed in front of us — “Ewwww,” I would say, “how embarrassing.” But inside, I felt proud of their marriage.

My home itself felt mine, as if it were inside me and outside me at the same time. I wrote on the walls of my closet — the initials of the boys I had crushes on. “K.F. + C.J” Under it, “K.F. + S.D.” Under it, “K.F. + B.R.” A history of revolving middle-school love.

I walked the neighborhood, miles and miles, up and down with my girlfriends before we could drive. We screamed and ran from cicadas during one of their on-cycle years. We screamed and ran from the dog that humped everybody. We screamed and ran from the boys in the neighborhood until we didn’t want to run away from boys anymore.

Where we come from is most meaningful when we agree on that meaning together. The agreement itself holds a certain magic.

Year after year, on Christmas Eve, our whole neighborhood prepared for an annual tradition of illuminating the streets with homemade paper lanterns. My dad and I worked in the garage, filling brown paper lunch sacks with sand from awkward sandbags, our fingers stiff and aching in the cold. Our breath smoked out in front of our noses as we carefully placed candles inside each paper bag. We then positioned the luminaries along the front of our corner lot and lit them at dusk. Every home in the neighborhood completed this ritual at the same time. And as we drove home from church that night, our entire neighborhood glowed magically, even the Hindu family’s home. A cozy path of tradition, beauty, and warmth. Maybe, I felt, even a hint of something holy.

These are the things I lost in 1997 when my parents divorced. I know this ending through a child’s understanding and with an adult knowing. It is not only the story of the end of their marriage but also the beginning of my sense of exile; a separation from myself and a negation of my own history.

When my own marriage ended, it happened again — the very thing I thought I’d protected myself against by marrying a sweet young man I’d known since childhood. The loss I thought I could charm myself against, the sadness I tried to beat back. The thing I wanted to protect my own children from: years of knowing that proved not to be knowing at all.

It strikes me that home is a four-dimensional thing — it is a place, a place in time, the people of that time, and the people both in that time and beyond it. In that way, even the idea of home can be put to ruin.

I loved the house I’d lived in during the last four years of my marriage. It was an old farmhouse built in 1869 on an acre of land. A parcel of the lot, called “the wedge” still existed, marking a strip of our property where wagons and carriages used to get to the big farmhouse a long, long time ago. The house itself ambled. Various owners over 140 years built little bits on here and there. The original, hand-hewn nails held the floorboards in the original bedroom, which was my daughter’s. There was even a “secret passage” from a hall closet to an office (which I was told by a builder had originally been a porch). The house was rumored to have been on the Underground Railroad, though that turned out not to be true. It was true that Union soldiers camped on the property after the Civil War.

The house seemed made for the seasons. In the spring, the dogwoods welcomed the first color. I loved the June daylilies. The orange Osage tree dropped horrible fruit in late summer. In the fall, I stood under the yellow light of the hickory tree.

There was even a little hill where the kids would sled in the snow. “Imagine that!” I thought to myself, “Sledding at your own home!” I knew the kids would have wonderful memories there, and when their own children came to “Grandma and Grandpa’s” at Christmas, maybe they would sled on the same hill. Maybe we would all remember together and time would hold our family in a comforting embrace.

As my marriage was falling apart, I didn’t know whether to cry or smile as I shoveled snow off that stupid driveway again and again (there was a lot of snow that year). I was alone; the kids, really too little to help. I was miserable, shoveling, alone, and so tired. But I still felt the beauty.

On those crisp, clear winter nights, I hauled our trashcans down to the street, looking up at the stars and praying for the strength to let it all go.

I put the house on the market in September of 2016, the same month we finalized the divorce. That month, for the first time, I found toads in the basement. I’m not scared of slow-moving animals. It was just remarkable to me. Why now? Why toads? Everything changes.

We moved by November.

Even after these erasures, I’ve created a new home. My house is much smaller now. I can mow my yard in half an hour, tops, with a battery-powered mower.

At the beginning of my new life, I asked myself every day, “How do I give my kids a sense of home? How can I make a place for them that feels safe and stable — where they can let their guard down, and just be? A place they will long for when they are one day far away on their adult adventures?”

I try to lay a brick or two of this creation every day. What do we eat for dinner? Who are the family friends that share special moments with us? What bread do we bring to the annual Bread Service at church? Whose job is it to feed the dog or take out the trash? Are the lights on when they come home on a winters’ night?

Are you certain of getting homemade ice cream cake on your birthday (a recipe from Aunt Susie)? Yes, you are.

I’ve been listening to a podcast, Dolly Parton’s America. It explores so much about what makes Dolly Parton totally awesome. A couple of episodes delve into (and visit) Dolly’s old Tennessee home. She talks about how she has never really left the mountains, the mountain people, the old mountain home high in the Blue Ridge Mountains — even though she doesn’t live there. The narrator explains that the word nostalgia is rooted in Greek — “return,” “home,” and “ache” are all implied.

Where we come from is meaningful. It is most meaningful when we agree on that meaning together. The agreement itself holds a certain magic.

In my homes, I’ve weathered a lot of subtraction. One person less here, another family less there. Meanings have been negated at times—or lost. I hope that as my life progresses, there is addition. Addition of spouses and, one day, grandkids. Maybe the addition of someone special in my life. It will all bring change and re-creation, but addition seems like it would be good.

Yet, I’ve also become adept at making a home in myself. In that steadiness, I am a person full of both joy and longing. And my longing differs from a simple longing for my own history or my own family.

Many of us miss our childlike connection to magic and the mysterious. I think it’s why, even as adults, we love Christmas — or at least have a sense of nostalgia for the season even if we are not Christian.

I remember just standing alone in the family room of my childhood — the lights out, but the Christmas tree glowing. My parents, in some other part of the house. Everything hushed. I stood at the tree and held one of the little lights in my hand. The warm globe of the white light in my little palm made me feel connected to something very big, but safe. I felt wonder at being a part of something.

When people are in the last days of their life, they often fade in and out of lucidity. Sometimes their eyes are open, but they seem to be in a dreamlike state — seeing and talking to people who are invisible to us. They often talk to their mothers and fathers who’ve died before them. They may talk about “going home.”

Sometimes my longing for home is a comfort. Sometimes it is an ache. Sometimes it isn’t words, but music. Sometimes it isn’t longing, but knowing. Knowing we are all — each one of us — all of these things: all that we have known, and all that is to come. We don’t understand it fully, but we recognize the feeling — and, I believe, we will recognize each other there.

Frank Oz wrote these lyrics for The Muppet Movie, circa 1979:

Sun rises, night falls. Sometimes, the sky calls.
Is that a song there? Or do I belong there?
I’ve never been there, but I know the way.
I’m going to go back there someday.

I’m a grief therapist and former hospice social worker. Our stories don’t need to make us look good, just connect us. Check out my TEDx talk at www.ted.com

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