Saturday, December 12, 2009

Home for Christmas

Hearth and home…there's no place like home, no matter where it is.

Have you ever been homesick for a place or a person or a life you once led?
I was never homesick in college or on two academic stretches in England, or even three years working in Boston. It was probably because home was never really more than a few hours away–and in England I often felt like, in many ways, I had returned home or at least had been there before in many beloved books and interests.

Oddly enough, the only place I was ever truly homesick for any prolonged stretch–that gut-wrenching kind of feeling when you can't eat or sleep and you just want to cry all the time–was for most of the two weeks in my only stint of summer camp in my 11th year back in Akron, Ohio. I had stayed at Camp Ledgewood on weekends many times as a Girl Scout, but always with my troop and often with my mother there as troop leader. It was reassuring in that setting and it was safe, despite the ghost stories late at night in our bunks and the success at levitating poor Kathie Worrell right off a wooden bench after which we screamed so hard that we dropped her on her back (and one of the other women chaperones went home in the middle of the night). Being scared–and hysterical–just felt right with your mother and best school friends in the next bunks and the glow and warmth from the embers in the stone fireplace crackling and dying away.

Even at summer camp, I shared a cabin with one of my best childhood friends. But in came the raccoons sniffing us at night on our cots and the shocked looks and whispers of the other campers when they heard from my friend that my parents were getting a divorce (remember: this was 1973 in a largely conservative suburban upbringing where these things hadn't really happened before). It just buckled my world and it became home that I missed, and the home that I thought I had had, and where I thought I was best understood: the presence of my mother and my younger brothers, the comfort of my bed and my things, our dog, and the hemmed in familiarity of our house and neighborhood. My father had moved just a mile away in a new apartment and my grandparents remained on the other side of Market Street in their large but welcoming home that always felt like family history and holidays and smelled of ashes and roses. That summer everything changed, including my self-confidence.

Looking back on that time I always figured that it was the recent change in our lives that had made me want to be closer to home: my parents had separated only a few months before and told us that they would be on a humid May night while I'd been watching Sonny & Cher. This is what I remember: the baby doll pajamas I was wearing, the gold fish in Cher's lucite shoes and one of my brothers asking if we'd still be able to go to see the Cleveland Indians games with our Dad. A month later I climbed into my father's lap to say goodbye. He was sitting on the green chair in the living room and it was the first time I saw him cry. Later that day we feasted on fried chicken, waffles and scones all prepared by Mrs. Wirth, the minister's wife down the street, after a full day at Play Land, a small amusement park outside of Akron. [And thus began my journey with food as comfort.]

In high school I was a homebody, too, feeling responsible while helping my then single mother. Ironically, in the last few days of camp when I was finally enjoying myself and not worrying about home (or my mother), I was summoned to see Cat, the head of the camp. I knew that something was wrong. She wouldn't tell me, despite my tears, and when my father picked me up a long hour later after I'd gotten my things together, I learned that my grandmother had died. The next day, sitting by my father as he played the organ at his mother's memorial service in the large church, I saw him weep quietly for a second time in as many months.

One of many Houses of Holidays Past, but the most recent and lingering in my memory.

Ironically, being in Kentucky feels like the first time I've truly left home, even though I've been married for over thirteen years and have lived in several homes, and locations, since college ended twenty-five years ago. Last winter I had persistent house dreams of former homes and I had waking homesickness for our last home, especially around the holidays: that house, big and old and full of history, was made for Christmas and all family occasions. It sat in the middle of a small New England village and when it snowed, you could swear you were part of a charming snow globe scene or in a winter remake of the movie Pleasantville. Of course, there was also the farm where I grew up and I am still reconciling that reality. Even though we were the ones to effectively obliterate it, it ceased being "home," in the welcome sense of things, over eight years ago. That would likely be the case today, even if we had never purchased it with the intentions of retaining and reviving a family homeplace.

In the past few years I have continued to make a new home: new friendships, new connections, new feelings for the land around me. It has been a gradual process but there are times, like today, where I feel the ache of loneliness for what I have left behind, especially the proximity of several great and easy friends, quite fluid and natural friendships, that were so welcome after not feeling a part of my own family any more. Good restaurants and small shops where everybody knew your name and were glad to see you. An ease, at times, of too much familiarity. A culture that fit versus a culture where I am trying to fit in while still being myself.

Perhaps the gloom of the time of year is just starting to kick in. December is a more inward time: we celebrate the darkest and longest night of the year on December 21st and then it is no accident that the days start to brighten again. Or that Christmas is the celebration of God's light on Earth–Emmanuel, "God With Us." I need to always remember that it isn't the house or the place, but the light within. But it certainly can be about the people, too: those we love and those we want to know better. As much as I love the people in my house, and the haven of my home, I realize how social a creature I am, too, and yet sometimes "barking up the wrong tree" is my fatal flaw. I would have been a great puppy dog who wants to please his master no matter how dismissively he is treated at times. Only connect! wrote E.M. Forster in Howard's End. [This is easier said than done at times.] PHOTO ~ "You are the Light of the World." A sheep in the barn at the United Society of Friends, Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

I am so blessed and I need to remember that, too. It is also good to always remember and visit with the Ghosts of Christmases Past but to not linger too long in their company. Last night I started reading a book that felt like an old friend: A Kentucky Christmas, edited by George Ella Lyon and published by the University Press of Kentucky [2003].

I bought it and had it signed by Lyon in November 2007 when I was a participant in the Kentucky Book Fair and peddling my pantry book in the year it was published. [Imagine my delight to also be a few tables down from the esteemed, and quite humble, Wendell Berry and have him sign some books for me. I also had the good chance to visit with other Kentucky authors such as David Dominé, and Bruce and Shelley Richardson of Elmwood Inn fame, who sat on either side of my table.]

Here is a poem from this Christmas-related collection from Kentucky authors. It resonated with me last night before bedtime and perhaps somewhat prompted this introspective feeling today. So, rather than brood and dwell and stew, as can be my nature, I wanted to pause during a busy day to write these feelings out and to share this poem with you. I will be excerpting other things from A Kentucky Christmas in the weeks ahead and will read it aloud with my family. I know, for some of us, that this time of year can be as much of a sorrowful time as it can be joyous. And that's alright. But I will strive to be happy and merry and, in the words of Tiny Tim, "God bless us, every one!"

Home for Christmas

I want to be there
but I no longer know the way.
It needn't be Tiny Tim
or a new doll
Not even snow
pine and cedar
or wood-smoke.

We know what it is:
a love that's in spite of
a gathering in–
because one must–
a Holy Adoring
a baby asleep
a star in the sky
a glow in the heart

It has to be here
I cannot go back
and back is not there
It has to be here.
~ Kathleen Hill Sterling

NOTE from A Kentucky Christmas ~ Kathleen Hill Sterling was born in Kentucky in 1914. She studied at her beloved Eastern Kentucky University, married her college sweetheart, Ed, reared her children and taught in the mountains of Harlan County, and retired to a Florida shore and a Kentucky lake. Throughout her life–whether laughing, loving, grieving, working, playing, thinking–she let her pen in on the secret. A poet and short-story author, she was foremost a mother and teacher of poets, encouraging her students to let their eyes sink deep and conjure up what was really there. She taught them to trust what they saw, felt and knew and to never be timid. She emboldened student poets, yet for modesty's sake, she tucked most of her own work between the pages of her journals. She died in 1996.


Erica said...

I can relate to this blog for different reasons. I loved the poem, I cried.....the end got to me. I become sad at the end of Christmas every year, almost depressed sometimes, it has always been such a special holiday for our family and in a sense, thats a place I can never go back to, that momet in time. Thanks for another wonderful blog that makes us slow down and think. Blessings, Erica

Catherine said...

Thank you Erica - I hope not too glum here at the pantry today, but introspective, surely!

I often wrangle with why this time of year is more fraught than other times can be. My childhood Christmas memories are so strong and wonderful I almost can't be in them for long...just as I really can't listen to Christmas music any more (unless it is live) without getting sad. (Music was always a huge part of our family Christmases--with my father and my mother and in church.)

But I try to reinvent the holiday now in our new home–it seemed perfection in our former home and in childhood, certainly. And it is lovely here for different reasons, although last year I was too sick with pneumonia to remember much of it!

Blessings to you too,


Erica said...

Catherine, I too, seem to try to re-invent the holidays as well. Christmas was my dads favorite holiday and we cellabrated it so. Now that he is gone, its been a completely new experience, I still have my mom and Christmas time is still a big deal, but I completely understand where your coming from. I dont believe its too glum here today, just everyday life. Hang in there! Oh, and your quite welcome!

Nan said...

Oh, Catherine. What beautiful writing. It was a wonderful experience reading your words.

Catherine said...

Thank you, Nan. I sometimes feel I am being a bit too personal for a blog that is supposed to be more about food and domestic life, but there you go. It's all rather intertwined anyway.

Erica, I'm finding with many of my 40-something girlfriends, even the most devout, that the holiday season is increasingly lacking. I think we just all put too much pressure on ourselves as women, mothers, daughters, wives, etc. The holidays just really add to that.

Best, Catherine

Erica said...

I agree

Tipper said...

Being homesick is miserable. I liked your post-and I hope your blues go away soon : )

I liked the poem.

Addie said...

Mommy that was such an incredible blog. Christmas has been hard now that i'm working but i am thankful for the memories that i have from growing up. You always made everything so beautiful and magical. Miss you and the family. xox Merry Christmas

Catherine said...

Oh Addie, we'll miss you, too. The holidays have a different sheen now that you are working "up there" and we are "down here" and Currier and Ives sort of up and's probably the time that I most miss our old house and those big family gatherings of yore.

But we did have some snow today! Even though it was not long lasting...

Lots of love,