It is the year 2050. Eleanor and Walker are bringing their families home for Christmas via interplanetary shuttle to Cloud City on Venus, where their parents live in a comfortable low gravity retirement community. The kids love being able to bounce around their grandparents’ house, chasing the cats. At dinner, everyone lifts a glass and says “Schnucks!” before passing the cornbread dressing.
My picture of a good homecoming at Christmastime has always meant several generations crammed into one house, like in the Walton’s Christmas movie (“Homecoming”), the kind that makes a person miss the kind of Christmas they used to have with their parents in the good old days of years gone by, those years when we saw our siblings so often we could afford to quarrel with them.
Arriving home for Christmas, when I was very young, began with the crunch of our Missouri tires on my grandmother’s Arkansas gravel drive. Not once in my years of arriving did she fail to appear, hurrying down the steps from her front porch, hands dusting off on her apron, before we could get ourselves out of the car. She had made cookies and cakes and ham and turkey and the house smelled of it all. One year Santa brought me a Mary Poppins doll. I slept with my grandmother on the double bed in her spare room, made up with hot pink sheets that she always declared were “too loud” to sleep on.
For a good many years, my grandmother and my aunt and cousin came from Arkansas to our house in Missouri. We would play the piano and sing. My mother would have one entire counter filled with tins of cookies and fudge that she would bring out after supper. The tree was hung with birds and pears, and we would use my parents’ Waterford crystal glasses for Christmas dinner, the ones that only the two of them would wash by hand afterwards, in the kitchen where my cousin’s dog stayed when they came. On the day they left for Arkansas, we would go to St. Louis and out to dinner or to a play, so we wouldn’t have to be sad, left amidst the discarded wrapping paper.
Our first Christmas away from home, home came to us. We had an apartment in Rhode Island and one room had red carpet, so we taped a Christmas tree cut out of wrapping paper to the wall and put our presents in front of it. My parents and brother brought us fudge and sweaters and books to sustain us through the long New England winter, and made Arkansas cornbread dressing so it would smell like home.
We had Christmases with babies tucked up in a crib in the corner of my old bedroom or my brother’s and older children sleeping on cots or in the basement. Everybody had a stocking and there was room for them all on the long mantelpiece, along with the candlesticks with Chinese characters that my father always said probably read “I’ll sell this for too much to a stupid barbarian” in some obscure dialect. My father would make a fire in the fireplace on Christmas morning, and my mother and brother would taste the spices for the cornbread dressing, conferring.
There were a few Christmas mornings at the other grandparents’ house, where no matter how early you got up, it wasn’t too early, and there was often snow and birds to feed and stories about fishing on Arkansas lakes while we ate fried crappie.
We made a couple of quieter Christmases at our own house, with stockings for my parents and us and children and cats. There was one Christmas eve when an entire Playmobile spacehab had to be put together, and one when Eleanor asked her grandmother to tell her what Santa looked like, since she and grandfather were sleeping on the fold-out couch right in the living room in front of the fireplace. Walker was allowed to wake everyone up when it was 7 am, and he was always right on the dot.
We spent a few Christmases in Chicago and at my brother’s house, with a dog and a two-story-high Christmas tree and big-city museums and plays at some point in the trip. There was a final Christmas with my father, when we took him to see White Christmas, featuring the song he sang most often, “Blue Skies.”
This year I had an early homecoming with my mother, texting me in from the airport as her own mother would have liked to, I think, and then waving from her rehab room window as I pulled up in the parking lot.
We will have a small Christmas this year, with a new cat since the last time we hung our stockings here, and grown-up children beginning their own process of homecoming.
So, my grown-up children, here is what I know about homecoming: no matter how far you have to go to get there, home will always be the place where the people who love you best do some of the things you’ve always liked in an effort to erase the passage of time and make each Christmas the one you’ve always looked forward to most.
(This is my contribution to a family writing assignment; we all wrote about “homecoming” and read the results to each other on Christmas night.)