Home for the Holidays? It was not a pandemic that stopped our annual pilgrimage home

Heading home for the holidays? This is the usual refrain among military families, but the pandemic is forcing a different tune. I stopped heading home for the holidays a long time ago, when our boys were between 8 to ten years old,  and with good reason. I’d like to tell you why I stopped in hopes to shed a new perspective on staying put over the holidays.

I remember walking the oak-shaded trees of my New Jersey hometown holding my young son’s hand. We would head out from Gram’s house for the fifteen minute walk to Main Street, where we could get a bowl of home-made ice cream. The sidewalks which we followed to town were cracked and buckled, not so much from age as from the huge roots of those oak trees. My son would ask for the same stories each visit. About my best childhood friend who lived in the house across the street whose parents still live there. About the people next door who knew my family before I was born, and still live there. About climbing trees that were big when I was little whose very roots were now ripping up the sidewalk. He would sigh and dream aloud to me about what it would be like to grow up in such a place, where nobody moved, where Gram lived around the corner, where Aunt Reeny’s swimming pool was a bike ride away, where cousins lived in the next town. And he would promise me and himself aloud, that when he grew up, he would raise his family in a place just like this. A place with strong and deep roots.

That’s when I’d start to worry. A mother wants to give her children everything they wish for, especially aunts and uncles who are a part of their daily life. But my life had taken me far away from my immediate family, as it has for so many of my friends. What does this transient lifestyle do to our children? Dragging them around the country, the world – two years here, a year there. Was this fair? At that point those oak trees seemed to come alive, like that scene in The Wizard of Oz, telling me in a deep oak-tree voice that I was making one big mistake. Nature simply did not intend for children to be raised like that.

After years of worrying about this, I found myself in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There was a magnificent old banyan tree in the back yard of our house. A banyan tree does not have a traditional root system like the oak tree. On the contrary, as the banyan’s branches grow out and up toward the sun, a vine will sprout from the branch and make its way from the branch to the ground, where it will root. Through this natural rerooting system, the vine grows to form another supporting trunk for the tree. As a result of this system, one banyan tree will appear, at first sight, as a stand of trees until you get under it and look up, only to discover it is but one tree.

My handful of friends who are natives of the area are the oak trees, and it really is nice to know that there are still some of them around. But the rest of us, it appears to me, are banyan trees, putting down roots wherever we happen to find ourselves. No rules of nature are being broken; the children will be OK. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be OK. The banyan tree allowed me to understand that, and those big old oak trees up in New Jersey don’t intimidate me anymore.

On a little league bleacher several years ago another Mom and I were swapping stories. Hers will help me make my point clearer. It was a Christmas long ago, and she and her husband were up to three or four kids – all under the age of 8 or 9. Her husband was packing the car for the long road trip to spend Christmas with his folks. The four-year old appeared at the door and said “Daddy, where are we going?” His father responded that they were all going home for Christmas. Then the little boy said “But, Daddy, I thought this was home.” Her husband then unpacked the car.

Because that Christmas it was.

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