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A Middle Aged Journey Home for the Holidays

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By Preston Ehrler

I am spoiled by Christmases past. The perfection of Christmas in New England combined with the passing of years has created the illusion of the perfect holiday season. Family, friends, parties — both young and adult — varsity hockey games, frozen ponds and a winter wonderland hang in my thoughts more vividly than sugar plums dance in children’s heads. Christmas past is just out of reach, a disappearing memory, there one moment and fading upon the next breath. Never forgotten, yet never replicated, regardless of endless attempts.

So what happens when your childhood home is long sold, and your parents live 1,000 miles away from what was once Christmas perfection? In a nutshell: You travel to their home, and quickly realize that the Christmas of your youth is gone forever.  And although new realizations may become evident, the holidays can quickly become a gulag-like slog of time with family.  Adding insult to injury is when your still married parents live in separate houses, and you feel like a latch-key middle-ager–shuttling between houses under a black cloud of guilt, sans the silver lining.  Or so I thought.

My Christmas season usually begins sometime in June when my mother inquires about my plans.  Am I coming home?  Will I be staying on the East Coast?  My initial reaction is one to defer the decision to a much later date, but recently I have found myself committing to a trip to the dreaded Midwest.  As I despise flying, I opt to fire up my gas guzzling Jeep and head to points west, visiting friends and taking pictures along the way.  Becoming almost an annual ritual at this point, I take full advantage of the opportunity and use it to re-connect with friends whom, otherwise, I would rarely visit.  Actually, several friends, like my mother, begin to ask if I’m making the trip, yet again, sometime in the summer.  Without a commitment, they express both their disappointment and hope that I’ll be making the trek.

Yes, this has become a ritual and while I often swear it off in January, by the time it rolls around again, I’m excited to see everyone along the way.  By the time I arrive at my destination, I’m excited and ready to see my parents, as often this is my only time with them during the year.  And those years are speeding up in their passing.

The initial reaction to seeing my parents is elation.  Although we stay in close contact throughout the year, I have found nothing replaces their actual presence.  I’m truly lucky to have them both and, for the most part, although they live separately, I can see them both during the same trip.

Yet as the visit wears on, it is evident that once you are someone’s child, you are always their child.  It is also evident that as our parents age, their worlds become smaller.  While we still dream of taking on the world, flying by the seat of our pants, and have unfulfilled dreams, in many ways they have become resigned to their shrinking worlds.  I am saddened by this.  We grew up with our parents as our heroes.  They ran the households, took care of us, steered our lives and our educations, while simultaneously steering companies into acquisitions and mergers.  They were larger than life.  They could do no wrong.  Now putting a plate in the wrong place in the dishwasher or opening the wrong door is met with a steely gaze and disproportional wrath.  I quietly wonder, as I again promise to not return, will this become my life?

But I also remember what a close friend who had lost her mother said to me many years ago, as I, again, argued with my mother.  “I would give anything just to have one more moment with her, just one more.”

Yes, I will continue to open the wrong door, continue to put the dishes in the wrong place, continue swear on Christmas Eve, all drawing ire and wrath.  Yet, this year I have again realized what makes Christmas wonderful is family, in all their glorious imperfections.  I also know I will return, just to have one more moment with my parents:  just one more Christmas at home.


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