Today when I long for "home," I don't think of the inevitable colorless sky that greets anyone silly enough to travel to Ohio in December, or even the tree-lined street where I grew up, as familiar to me as my own face.

I think, instead, about being 5 years old and standing in the church basement, waiting for the first organ chords to come crashing in so we could parade up from the darkness, singing our way into the Christmas light.


The author (left) and her big sister celebrate the Christmas of 1977.
The author (left) and her big sister celebrate the Christmas of 1977.

I played a game of Life with two grade-school kids not long ago, and I have to admit I was floored when they started cheating. I mean, really. This is a game of chance. It's dependent on a spinning wheel.

It doesn't matter!

I'm not around small children enough to remember, apparently, that everything matters to them. Not just life and death, but the game of Life, and who gets to sit in the front seat, and whether you get a red Popsicle or a green one. Nothing is too small to fight over — because everything matters so very much when your heart is still young.

In my 30s, it feels just the opposite. I don't know about you, but it occurred to me this year that I can endure just about anything. I've made my skin so thick that nothing hurts.

I've become practical.

To the practical, Christmas no longer makes sense, which is why so many adults riff away on the awfulness of the season. The Muzak-y carols that start in October, the long lines at the mall, the boastful holiday letters.

Even those of us who have the Christmas "spirit," I think, are less engaged with the reality of the holiday than with trying to summon the ghosts of Christmas past. I've spent the Christmases of my adulthood longing for the Christmases of my childhood.

People with kids, I suppose, may have a few years enjoying the holiday. But they surely end up where my parents are today: dreaming of the Christmases they used to know, back when they had a passel of kids in footie pajamas. Now, they're stuck pressuring those kids to give them the time of day.

Sigh.

It occurs to me that I used to love playing Life. I remember praying to God as I spun the wheel — begging for a five so I could have twin babies! — and crying when I lost. I'm sure (though I don't remember specifically) that I also cheated when I played. I was a habitual cheater at board games when my brothers weren't looking.

I used to be so excited on Christmas Eve that I couldn't sleep. I remember that, too.

Now, at 32, I know what it's like to be too stressed to sleep, too angry to sleep, and even too tired to sleep. But only in my memory do I know what it's like to be too excited to sleep. Nothing is that awesome, not anymore. And that breaks my heart, even as I insist that my heart can't be broken.

Plenty of great old-school carols joyously celebrate Christ and His birth. But the only secular songs that work for me in the slightest are the ones touched with sadness.

Just think about "White Christmas," which Irving Berlin supposedly wrote by the pool at the Arizona Biltmore (but, in reality, probably didn't).

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas

Just like the ones I used to know

Where the treetops glisten

And children listen

To hear sleigh bells in the snow . . .

You could only write a song like that in a place like Phoenix: A cold, snowy Christmas is mostly appealing when you aren't in the middle of it, knee-high in slush and freezing your tail off.

And yet, on the Christmases that I do make it back to Ohio, I'm struck by how the cold air rips through your lungs — equal parts pain and pleasure.

I'll take a walk with my dad along the edge of the barren woods. We have real conversations, my dad and me. We're always pushing books on each other; we always have new theories to try out on each other. Yes, I think to myself as I walk. This is why I come back.

Or Adam and Rachel and I make cookies. The younger of my two brothers is now roughly the size of a tank; he pitched for his college baseball team and bulked up accordingly. But get a tube of frosting in his hands, and he giggles like a schoolgirl.

We've done this together for years, and every year I think he may be too cool to join in. But he's never let me down.

I won't be going home this year. The airlines want something like $800 for a direct flight to Cleveland. Theoretically, I could get to Hawaii for less. Hawaii! It seems silly to brave the airport on the busiest day of the year when you could save the money instead for some exotic weekend getaway.

Even when you're homesick, there's no comparison between Cleveland and Oahu.

Especially when the Cleveland you remember isn't there anymore. Neither of my sisters is making it home this year. And my brother Adam, the giggling tank, just got engaged. His fiancée is incredibly nice, but it strikes me that Adam's days of helping me with the icing are probably over.

It's one more reminder that we aren't 5 years old anymore. We're grown-ups, or at least we're supposed to be.

We have no choice but to muddle through . . . somehow.

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6 comments
Leigh Myers
Leigh Myers

Thank you for such a well written article. Like you, I am from Ohio and couldn't afford the $800 ticket home for Christmas. Your article opened my eyes to a reality that I was never able to pinpoint cognitively, especially the part about the emotional pull of Christmas. You make several valuable points and I enjoyed reading your thoughts. Thank you again for being the comfort that was needed as another holiday passes.

tom davis
tom davis

Thanks a lot.

You got me crying.

Please, please, take every opportunity to go home. Both my parents are gone and while you're right, you would like to return to your childhood, you also want desperately to share time with your parents again.

Don't wait until it's too late to do so.

Kathy Monkman
Kathy Monkman

What a poignant piece Sarah. I've been thinking a lot about longing lately myself. And thinking maybe it's not such a bad state to be in. Maybe it's some sort of magnet that draws that *whatever* to you. And of course you can't always get what you want...but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need. Dammit.

Chris Long
Chris Long

"What's gone can never be regained for any price..."

It WAS better when XMAS was more than just a retail sales event and the commercial tsunami didn't really exist. Looked what they've turned it into...

Now the PC crowd is even trying to prevent the rest of us from offending them by having a merry little Christmas.

Like Sarah, the revelation hits you like a freight train -- forget all the junk you can but and people can buy you...it's those we love and love us that made those long ago Christmases bright. All the gifts under the tree etc. -- that was just stuff.

 
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