For better than thirty-five years, that question had an easy answer.
For three and a half decades, my wife’s extended family gathered at her maternal grandparent’s home in West Point, Mississippi. No matter how far away we were, and by far, we roamed the most, we were there. There was no question about going; we just went – because that is just what the family did. The trip home was not expected or demanded, we did it because we wanted – and maybe needed – to go. It was an annual pilgrimage cheerfully made.
It wasn’t always easy and when we lived only an hour and a half away, we never really appreciated how much it truly meant, that is at least until at the end of one very difficult year, a year when it appeared we would not make it back home for Christmas.
One year after I was restructured out of a job and the regional economy wasn’t that great, we had moved back to Utah. I had invested in my budding consulting business and that investment wasn’t paying off. I had a couple of clients and partners that owed me a goodly sum of money and for one reason or another, the money simply was not forthcoming. In the fall, our savings account was running dry as I fought to keep my business alive long enough to get paid and after struggling for months seemingly without end, December rolled around. We were so broke, that as of December 15th, there were no presents for my kids under the tree. I was faced with the possibility of having to tell three kids under the age of eight that there would be no Christmas presents that year and we couldn’t afford to travel the 1,700 miles back to Mississippi so that we could be with family.
I can remember the tearful conversation with my wife about what I was going to say to the kids as if it were yesterday. It has been over 20 years but it still breaks my heart to think about it. There have been three times in my life when I felt that I was an abject and total failure – and this was one of them. Nothing defines failure more than letting your children down. Facing the shame of being broke was nothing compared to facing the possibility of having to look into three hopeful and innocent little faces less than two weeks before Christmas and tell them that Santa would not be coming that year.
Christmas Eve was on Friday that year and as proof that God does work in mysterious ways, 8 days before Christmas, two unsolicited gas company credit cards arrived in the mail as an introductory offer to my business, each with a $500 limit (yeah, once upon a time credit cards would just randomly show up in the mail). One of the envelopes also contained those credit card checks that can be used like normal checks, so we wrote ourselves a check for $500, deposited it in our bank account and on the Saturday before Christmas, my wife used $300 of that money to immediately go out and buy the kid’s presents to put under the tree. We kept the rest to use for food on the trip back and the $500 on the other card was enough for gas to get to Mississippi and back. We had no idea what we would do when we did get back; we just wanted to go home to family. We needed the warmth and love of family to get us through a very, very difficult time.
So we went home…
And that trip gave us the strength to change direction. That trip was the beginning of our recovery. I shudder to think what would have happened, what turn our lives would have taken, had we not made that trip across country with three kids, two dogs, a cat and a red-eared tortoise – all packed in a Chevy Astro mini-van like a can of sardines.
But we made it. We came home.
So many years of life history, so many family firsts – my mother- in-law was the first child of her parents and the first to marry, my wife was the first grandchild, and my daughter was the first great-grandchild. In thirty-five years, Christmas attendance grew from a handful to 30-40 family members. I’ve witnessed births and deaths, health and sickness, financial success and distress, marital bliss and conflict; children have become parents of a new generation. I’ve witnessed life happen in the laboratory of a warm and welcoming home in West Point, Mississippi.
For thirty-five years, we always came home.
My wife’s family is very special to me. I do have a devoted brother who is eight years my junior in my home town but my mom is gone, passing away in 2004 after 10 years in a nursing home. A particularly aggressive case of early onset Parkinson’s disease and the associated dementia took her away from us and turned her body into a twisted and gnarled husk, a sadistic parody of the strong willed woman who raised two sons. My mom and dad were divorced after 24 years of marriage and he left us. Less than a year after, she fell ill and I was left to take care of my brother who was just entering high school, my own family and a sick mom. My dad and I are estranged because of this and have spoken twice in thirty years – he has never met any of my children. I count placing my mom in a nursing home and my kids never knowing their grandfather as my other two great failures.
Needless to say, I drew very close to my wife’s family because of these things.
They became my family, my safe haven from the world.
This year is different – in many ways. Money is no longer a problem, getting back to Mississippi – even from Scotland – isn’t an issue. My children are successful and happy adults and I still have two dogs and a cat… by all objective standards, I have the fullness of life.
But my soul is empty.
This past May, my wife’s grandfather unexpectedly passed away. He had been in a weakened condition but still doing reasonably well, even on the day he died, he was expected to be released from the hospital where he had been fighting a respiratory issue. This was a terrible blow to the family but at least we still had the matriarch of the family, my wife’s grandmother, Mary Helen Southern, as an anchor.
A few weeks ago, Mrs. Southern was also in the hospital as she had become too weak to care for herself. It soon became clear that dementia was setting in. As a result, a medical diagnosis led to a family decision being made that she needed to go to a care home for 24 hour attention and physical therapy. Mrs. Southern must have known that the dementia was starting because while she was still sound of mind, she spoke to her two remaining daughters (my mother-in-law passed away in 1998) about selling her house if she were to become disabled.
The suddenly empty house is quietly on the market.
Where will we go for Christmas?
The eventuality that we all knew approached with each passing year has now become reality. There will be no gathering at the Southern home this year. There will be no grand greetings, no “We are so glad you could come!” when met at the door with a wide smile and a big hug, no more “Did you get enough to eat?” questions, even after the second trip back to the kitchen. No more. There is only silence in the kitchen now.
The house on Calhoun Street will eventually belong to someone else who will begin to make new memories there. I hope they can feel the love that permeates those walls.
Where will we go for Christmas?
Where will we find the warmth, the fellowship, the safety, the unconditional love and acceptance that we found there the past years?
My heart is sick, my soul is empty and I feel lost.
I write this, not to garner your sympathy but as a means to explain myself.
As much as I feel this for my family, I also feel it for my country. As much as I adopted people who were not blood relatives as my own, I consider my fellow Americans the same way. I react the way I do because I feel the same emptiness in my soul when I see the country I grew up in slipping away and I know that unless I do something, my grandchildren will never know the wonders that I have known, never have the chances that I have had, never have the life that I have been blessed with. I fear that they will not have the opportunity to live in a county that allows one to recover from stupid and self-inflicted wounds.
That is why I fight as hard as I do. It’s why sometimes I am an unflinching ass. I love my country as I love my family.
I ask you this: where will you go for Christmas?