The journeys began in 1995, when I left my native Long Island for college (I entered as a non-traditional-aged sophomore—25 years old, to be exact). During those undergraduate years, I packed my car at dawn following my last final exam, piled Christmas music cassettes on the passenger’s seat (I drove a 1989 Chevy Caprice Classic, lovingly and aptly named “Tanker”), and walked through the familiar front door by 12:30 p.m. The sight of the Twin Towers and the skyline from the Throgs Neck Bridge were always something of a comforting presence, like a lighthouse.
In later years, during and after graduate school, when my mother sold our house and moved to the East End, I parked the car on the Cross Sound Ferry—not quite so early this time—and sat outside on the deck for 90 minutes swaddled in layers of thermal and fleece and my old dorm-room comforter. Didn’t matter how cold or rainy it was.
When I moved to North Carolina in 2006, going home proved to be more challenging. One year I flew (and those who know me know I hate to fly). Another year I took a train. Prior to buying my beloved Volkswagen Beetle, I had to rent a car because my 1996 Oldsmobile Ciera couldn’t make it (the Caprice Classic became an organ donor for my mechanic’s muscle car). And I endured the 12+ hours of toll booths and traffic jams and the god-awful Belt Parkway as best as I could, always with the hope that I’d soon be in my mother’s house, which had come to be almost as much of a sanctuary as my childhood house had once been.
The skyline had changed over the years. When the Twin Towers came down, so did that beacon of light beckoning me back to safer shores. I was a grown-up now, with a career and student loans and an ever-increasing fortress of wisdom, the kind that can only be acquired from mistakes and experience and the passage of time. I viewed wisdom like a road map—a way to mark your current location while measuring how far you’ve traveled. “Home” had become something of a generic word, defined by whichever direction I was driving on I-95.
Because of end-of-semester responsibilities—first as a student and later as a professor—I typically departed one or two days prior to Christmas Eve. As a result, my mother waited to put up her tree. Sometimes the tree didn’t go up until the 24th. My twin brother would come over, and the three of us would exhume the dusty, antiquated boxes of ornaments—some of which are older than I am—along with lights, stockings, and the tree itself. My job was to assemble the tree and arrange its artificial branches into something more lifelike. My wombmate was in charge of stringing lights. Mom was in charge of garland and sorted through ornaments, each one with a story to tell. All this set to the yuletide soundtracks of Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby and other musical staples. Sometimes we’d reminisce about Christmases from our youth. Other times we’d remain in the present moment, always admiring our decorating talents and making each other laugh. And, of course, Mom would make last-minute ornament relocations.
Because of this ritual, I’d never seen the point of getting a Christmas tree for whatever apartment I was living in at the time. I wasn’t there to enjoy it throughout the holidays, so why bother? And yet, as the years progressed, during the time period between Thanksgiving weekend and going to the East End, I found myself feeling the absence of Christmas cheer and anticipation in my cluttered dwelling of end-of-semester student portfolios and revised novel manuscripts and to-be-read books. And so, one year in North Carolina, I bought a 3-foot, pre-lit tree from Big Lots, unfurled its branches just like I did with Mom’s tree, and decorated it with the ornaments I’d been collecting for almost twenty years that had been packed and pristine. When I finished, I couldn’t help but notice that it looked like a mini version of Mom’s tree.
It did the trick, I suppose. Something to tide me over until I got to Mom’s house. At best, it was cute. At worst, it was trying way too hard.
I took that little tree with me when I relocated from North Carolina back to southeastern Massachusetts two years ago. Yet the lingering melancholy signaled that I wasn't settled.
Thus, this past fall I moved back to Long Island to be a full-time resident again. I had described the final descent from the Cross Sound Ferry as “an awakening of a part of my soul that I never realized had gone to sleep.” And even prior to Thanksgiving, when the shops in Port Jefferson were already playing Christmas music and lining display windows with twinkle lights, I had mentioned to my sister that the early commercialism wasn’t getting to me this year. “Why is that?” I asked. “Maybe because you’re here for good this time,” she replied. She was on to something.
For the first time in almost twenty years, I’m not going home for Christmas; rather, I am home for Christmas.
And so, my twin brother (of course) and I shopped for the best artificial tree we could find (he unsuccessfully persuaded me to buy a real one). No more 3-footers for me; I wanted something “grown up.” By myself (although with several loved ones keeping me company in heart and mind) and to the accompaniment of Nat and Bing and the rest, I decorated the 6 ½ -foot tree with Looney Tunes and Cookie Monster and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Duran Duran ornaments, along with baubles that had adorned my grandmother’s Christmas tree for the last thirty years (she died on December 19 last year). I even did the garland. With each ornament, if not a story, then a marker on the road map of my life. And the hope—dare I say, the promise—that a year from now, there would be a new ornament, with a new story and a new marker. And I wouldn’t be hanging it by myself.
That night, in the dark living room save for the glow of the lights reflecting off the silver, tinsel-like garland, I sat in the present moment. For the first time, the house I’m renting felt like my house. And when my niece brought my 8 ½-month-old grandnephew to see the tree—the first to see it in person (and who better?)—and his eyes widened with the magical wonder we all strive to hold on to well into our mid-forties, the tree became real, and it took root.