Friday, December 23, 2011

There's no place like home for the holidays

Earlier this week my mom and I were reminiscing . . . A year ago we were driving across Texas. Like, all of Texas. In one day. We were in the midst of a cross-country trek from Florida to Washington, from my Air Force career to civilian life. On our stopover in Lake Charles, LA we had told my dad, my grandparents, “We’re hoping to make it to El Paso tomorrow.” They told us we probably wouldn’t make it that far. So, of course, we had to.

The next day, our third 16-hour leg in a row, we raced the rain, loopy and exhausted, through Southern California. The next day we peed in a snow bank on the side of I-5 when an accident closed the highway for two-and-a-half hours. But then we were home. We were home for Christmas.

The year before, I was also traveling, but the destination wasn’t nearly as welcoming. I spent Christmas morning at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany en route back from my two weeks of mid-tour deployment leave. Sometime later, I stumbled through the dark to board a bus in Kuwait on what may have still been Christmas, or may have been the 26th, or may have been New Year's for all I knew. Then I was back in Afghanistan.

I love everything about the Christmas season: the music, the lights, the fresh pine tree smell, Gingerbread Lattes at Starbucks. But at its heart – and I think this is why I love the season so much – Christmastime for me has always been about family.

Some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around family Christmas traditions: Meandering down the neon-tinted walkways with my parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins at “Zoolights,” flashing LED critters crisscrossing our path. Laughing as we try to find space on an increasingly overcrowded Christmas tree; a time capsule of ornaments – there’s my Baby’s First Christmas, the snowflake from the year my parents were married, the starfish I picked up for them in Florida. Every year we wonder just how long that Hershey’s Kiss has been in that Reindeer ornament’s pocket. Every year we leave it there. I remember watching A Christmas Carol (always the George C. Scott version!) until I could recite nearly every line. Then there was the time my brother came downstairs to find actual coal in his stocking. My parents exchanged confused glances (“Maybe there really is a Santa?!”) until their gaze settled on the perpetrator, my brother-in-law, who gave himself away with a chuckle. I remember the smell of roast beef wafting through my grandparents’ house, the star of Christmas Eve dinner, and trying desperately to save room for the red and green layered jello waiting in the fridge for dessert. Then, when bellies were full (and pants buttons undone) and empty stockings were re-hung by the chimney with care, I remember reading from “A Cup of Christmas Tea.”

In 2009, from the air over the Middle East, I tried not to think about the fact that those traditions were taking place without me. After all, I had chosen not to go home on leave. The thought of a frenzied, bittersweet not-quite-Christmas was too much to bear. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to leave again. Looking back, I sometimes wonder if I made the right choice. Was it a selfish decision? I missed my twin nieces’ first Christmas. I missed my grandfather’s last Christmas.

But there’s nothing I can do about that now . . . Except never miss another Christmas.

And I don’t plan to. I know I’m lucky to have that option. Not everyone does. I’m thrilled – so thrilled! – that so many of the men and women serving in Iraq will be reunited with their families in time for the holidays. But I also know several military families who will still be celebrating traditions without a parent, child or sibling; or whose traditions will be tainted by loved ones preparing to deploy shortly after Christmas. And like my grandfather’s, there are some voids that will always feel especially empty this time of year. Christmas was his favorite holiday, too.

Last year it hit me that our traditions have changed. Grandpa’s absence was profoundly felt. The twins’ presence took center stage. My siblings and I have moved away, and celebrations rarely take place on the actual holiday anymore; they happen when everyone, or most everyone, can be there. (5th of July, anyone?) But it also hit me – hit me with a force compounded by 24-months without a Christmas gathering – that when it comes down to it, traditions don’t really matter. All the stuff people get into such a stressful tizzy about over the holidays doesn’t matter.

You see, I only vaguely remember the presents I received. I don’t think it was roast, but I really don’t remember what we ate for dinner. I don’t remember how clean or dirty the house was. I don’t remember what anyone wore. I just remember the warmth and love and joy of being together. Of being home. At the risk of sounding cheesy, I really, truly believe that’s what the Christmas spirit is all about – those warm fuzzies.

This year, I want nothing more than warm fuzzies. I want nothing more than to watch the twins faces as they unwrap their gifts (they’re old enough now to enjoy the gifts themselves, not just the wrapping paper!) I want nothing more than to be Auntie “Wowen.” I want nothing more than to see my grandma smile. I want nothing more than to sip from a mug of hot spiced wine while Christmas music plays softly in the background and my family laughs in the foreground.

I wish you all warm fuzzies this holiday season, too. If you’re with family and friends, be thankful, for you are blessed. And for anyone who’s going through a hard time or remembering a loss, may those warm fuzzies soften your burden.

A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

"But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, 'God bless it!'"
~Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

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