“Why in the hell are we doing this again?”
I ask my husband this question every single year on the night before we pack our minivan to drive the seven hours it takes to get to my parents’ house in time for dinner on Christmas Eve. I pose it at some point between the hours of 9:30 p.m. and 2 a.m., while we drink alcoholic beverages containing nothing even remotely festive — no cranberry, no peppermint, no nog of any kind — and sit on the floor in our family room, dutifully wrapping presents for our three little girls.
“I really don’t know, Vicki,” my husband replies every single year, not looking at me because there is simply no time for looking at each other. In just a few hours, every item we will need to have with us to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus must be waiting by the front door for swift stowing and going — the kids’ matching Christmas jammies, Thad’s “Plaid Christmas Shirt,” my “Red Christmas Shirt With Beading,” three pairs of red tights, four suitcases, five winter coats/mittens/hats/boots/scarves/snow pants, the “reindeer food” that came home from day care in a Ziploc, the hardback of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, the bag filled with gifts for my family, the much smaller bag filled with gifts for each other, the digital video camera, the digital video camera charger, and the Elf on the Shelf (which I will totally forget about until 6:15-ish a.m., when I will dash out of bed so I can grab that Damnable Figurine of Parental Guilt and Madness from wherever I hid it the night before and sprint outside in my bare feet, open the car, and shove him onto the dashboard, his psycho-sprite face smushed against the windshield).
“Do you hear that?” I whisper about 271 times during The Wrapping, whenever I hear a thump, or a creak, or air circulating somewhere in the house, which could signal a creature stirring, a creature unnestling, a creature emerging from her bedroom to pee. My husband and I both freeze. We wait. On two occasions, one of us has jumped the gun, has actually flung our body forward, onto exposed scissors and sharp Scotch Tape teeth, intending to trick the maybe-or-maybe-not-awake child into believing that the sight of a parent lying face-down, spread-eagled on top of a tangled mass of wrapping paper and grosgrain and various items that she wrote on the list she mailed to Santa two days earlier, is just, you know, what parents do when kids are sleeping.
As soon as we’re finished, Thad shuffles to the garage to grab two 150-or-so-gallon black garbage bags. We stuff all of the presents inside, double-knot the bags at the top, and drag them to the front door, confident that the next morning, not one of our kids — not even the nine-year-old — will wonder what’s inside them, much less think to ask whose dead bodies we’re transporting to Nana’s house this year.
“This is insane,” Thad says, every single year. He acts as if he’s referring to the sham of it all — to the ends that we go to to perpetuate an illusion (i.e., lying to the three people who trust us more than anyone else in the world). But I know what he’s really talking about. The absurd effort, the familial displacement, the marital stress that inevitably leads to absolutely no mistletoeing — all so I can go home for the holidays.
ISN’T THIS HOME?
We’ve been living in our little yellow bungalow in Haddon Township for 11 years. It’s our first home. It’s where we brought all three babies home from the hospital, where I expect my husband is heading at the end of the day when he’s on his way home, where my kids are referencing when we’re at Home Depot purchasing various home-improvement items and they’re screaming like Dorothy Gale on meth, “We want to go home!”
My parents’ house is certainly not my home. Not anymore. I haven’t lived there in 24 years. They don’t even live in the home I grew up in. Two years ago, my mother and father moved out of that home, downsizing into a condo — a rancher, laundry on the main level, metal support handles in the shower stalls since “we’ll need those soon” — which is now our destination on Christmas Eve. But every time I travel there, I don’t tell people, “I’m going to see my parents.” I say this: “I’m going home.”
Sometimes, these people nod and say they “totally get it,” like my college pal Lynn, who tells everyone she’s “going home for the holidays” even though she hasn’t lived in Chestnut Hill for 20 years and flies in every Christmas … from Italy. Kevin’s lived on the other side of the country for nearly half his life, has a wife and two kids there, and only gets back to his mom’s house in West Chester once every three or four years, but still calls it home: “I’m from Philadelphia. That’s my home.” Another friend, Amanda, says the same thing I do about going back, until her kids correct her: “We are home, Mom.”
There are times, though, when I announce “I’m going home” and people look at me strangely. And then I feel strange. And selfish for depriving my children of visions of sugarplums dancing in their own house (where, incidentally, they’ve never woken up on Christmas morning, ever). And that sends me into the shame spiral, as if saying “I’m going home” is actually code for “Husband? Kids? Kiss off, you jerknuts! This is my party!” So I always backpedal: “I get to be a kid again there! I get to lie on the couch and watch marathons of Love It or List It! I don’t have to cook the pierogies!” And then those people seem to “get it,” too.
But I’m still not exactly sure I get it. I know that the draw, for me, is more than the tradition of being in my hometown, or the mere comfort of the coffee always being ready and not having to make my kids’ beds (my dad does that) and my mom staying up late in the night drinking pinot grigio with her only child while I discuss paint colors and multiplication tables and how many times a week I want to kill my husband. But behind all that, deep in my bones somewhere, I feel almost desperate about going home. Desperate to get home. Desperate to be home.
All of us, including me, have suggested at one time or another that it would be so much easier — so much smarter — if my parents came to our house instead of the other way around. That would mean two people packing instead of five. That would mean we’d hide our kids’ presents in the basement under an afghan, like normal parents do. A few times, we’ve actually gotten all the way to the moment when my mom says, “Let’s just do it this year. We’ll come to you. It’ll be great!”
Immediately, though, I come up with an excuse that sounds impressively selfless: “There’s snow at your house. The kids are dreaming of a white Christmas. They told me.”
And there my husband and I are again at 1:15 a.m., drunk and bitching in the silent night, stuffing those bags.
LAST JANUARY, it suddenly made sense to me. Just like that.
I was scrolling through Facebook one morning and spotted a photo in my newsfeed of a guy I kind of knew from high school. It was a holiday shot — he and his brother and his dad hanging out together in a kitchen with beige wooden cabinets and a pink Formica countertop and fruit wallpaper with a border across the top.
My breath skipped. I clicked on his page — I felt almost frantic — and saw other photos from the same gathering. There was the dining room. There were the cream curtains. There was the big picture window looking out onto Cypress Street. It was the house where I’d spent every Christmas Eve for 37 years.
It was my grandmother’s house.
Except it wasn’t her house anymore. She’d died four years before these photos were taken.
I kept asking dumb questions my brain already knew the answers to — “Why are these people here?” “Where are we?” It took a few seconds for my head to let the pieces fall into place — the guy’s mother did my grandmother’s hair for years and years; when my grandmother died, the hairdresser and her husband bought my grandmother’s house. Now, their kids and their grandkids go there for holidays. Of course they do. Of course.
I just wasn’t prepared to see it. I didn’t want to know for real that this holiday, this place, the people I loved there, weren’t actually frozen in time, the way it all stayed in my memory. Even though I knew my dad had taken over Christmas-hosting duty when his mother died. Even though I knew that soon enough, I’d have to do the same. It was as if my past and my future were colliding right there on my computer screen. And I didn’t want to face that future yet. I had too many friends who were there already. When I asked my friend Katie about it, her answer was so simple: “Home stopped being a place I went to once my mom died.”
That’s how it goes, I know. Home isn’t about the physical place at all. That’s not what I’m trying to hold onto. I know. But just like the kid who figures out the truth about Santa but keeps playing along anyway, I continue to pack up the Elf and the reindeer food and those big black bags that no one’s supposed to look in. I keep making the announcement to anyone who asks: “I’m going home.”
WHEN WE PULL IN their driveway, my dad rushes out first, wearing boots that he still calls “rubbers.”
“Poppy! Poppy!” the girls squeal, unbuckling from their car seats and slipping on shoes, tromping through the snow — because there is always, always snow — to get inside, where my mom is waiting to distract them with chocolate chip cookies — because there are always, always chocolate chip cookies. My dad stands by as Thad climbs onto the back bumper of the minivan and reaches up to unlock the car carrier on the roof. We all know: That’s where the bags are.
“This is ridiculous,” says Thad, a man who just drove seven hours across the state of Pennsylvania on Christmas Eve while listening only to Radio Disney. He grabs one bag and hands it down to my dad, with me spotting to make sure no packages tumble out. I grab the bag and walk along the far end of the car, so there’s no chance the kids will peek out the kitchen window and see it, though they saw their father hoist it into the car carrier that morning. It’s just a matter of time before they figure this out, before things change. For now, though, we are — all of us, for our own reasons — in on this illusion.
My dad punches in the code on the keypad for the garage. I slide between his cars and up the steps to the laundry room door. I open it. I peer around the corner to see if I spot anyone under the age of 10. I don’t. I only see the Christmas tree. I smell the ham baking in the oven. I hear the James Taylor Christmas album playing. My dad keeps an eye on the kids from the outside, watching through the kitchen window.
“Are they still there?” I ask. He nods, then makes a strange hand signal that I assume means: “Hurry up and get that bag down to the basement. I need a martini!”
I tiptoe down the steep stairs to hide it, relieved that for now, at least, there’s still time left.
Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.