Not Home for the Holidays

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I cried on the way back from the Christmas tree farm last weekend.

I wasn’t overcome with holiday joy, anticipating the special memories our little family of four were about to make again… decorating the tree by a roaring fire while watching Claymation Christmas specials on TV. And they weren’t tears of frustration because it was pouring rain and my toddler son thought he’d puddle jump down the aisles of evergreens while we quickly agreed to buy the first soggy tree pulled from the racks.

No, this time it was a melancholy cry, alone in the car after leaving my husband to pay and bind the tree to the roof of his car while I rushed to my next errand. For this year was our first tree-buying venture as empty nesters. My son was not yet home from college, and my daughter, who had just graduated with her masters at University of Edinburgh, was not coming home at all.

Not coming home for Christmas.

For all the social media woes commiserating about the youngest child leaving for college, I wondered aloud while no one ever talked about the REAL empty nest… when your child has finally reached the age that it’s no longer assumed they’ll be home for the holidays. When you spend that first Christmas without your first-born.

Five years ago, I wrote about crying on the way home from Trader Joes because my senior HS daughter was about to go to university in the UK, and I couldn’t imagine day-to-day life without her at home, under the same roof. Five years of studying and experiencing life abroad, traveling around Europe, making friends from every corner of the globe, and finally, meeting her soul mate. The years flew by, as time is wont to do, but this holiday I feel myself yearning even more for a tether to the past.

Not only have both of our children flown the nest now, but this year we also moved that nest from a town where we had lived for 18 years. I picked my son up from his freshman year last May and had to give him a tour of his new home when we got back. My daughter has never step foot in this house and has only seen FaceTime backgrounds of our familiar belongings in unfamiliar spaces. The term “home” still feels mildly awkward to use with her, and I keep fluctuating between calling the bedroom that houses her childhood bed her room or the guestroom.

Thing is, either description works because “home” is now synonymous with a temporary visit, scheduled between classes or work, just another iCal entry. Summers at home, sharing family meals and birthdays, watching Rudolph in your PJs with hot chocolate are no longer assumptions at this house or any other. Even when my son is home from college, there’s this vague sense of being a guest now (a sentiment he tends to implore when it comes time for chores), and of course he’d rather play Fortnite with his friends than listen to dad read “The Night Before Christmas” on Christmas Eve.

Leaving our long-term home was extraordinarily hard while both children were away, and I shed many tears as I closed the front door for the final time. Home is truly where my heart has always been and without my children with me through the transplant, I felt untethered and lost. I wondered if I had just sacrificed the very idea of home to them, with its familiar sights and smells and years of our lives forever memorialized within its walls.

It’s taken almost a year, but I realize now that we will always be home, no matter which roof hangs over our heads, no matter how long the visit. Our empty nest has settled onto a different tree, and here we’ll perch waiting for new branches to wind and wend their way through, cherishing each new growth as it comes.

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