A restless nation heads home

November 25, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- "The kids are coming home for the holiday."

My friend announces this as we swap recipes for Thanksgiving.

I stop, amused for a moment at the language we now share. "When," I ask, "did we become the people who call their adult children, 'the kids'?"

We laugh briefly at the passage of time, at thoughts of our own mothers who still refer to us as "the girls," and then she pauses.

"When," asks my old friend, "did our kids become the people who come home only at holidays?" There is a moment as bittersweet as cranberry sauce.

This is the week when our friends are bringing in the younger generation like sheaves, eagerly harvesting them from bulging airports. We are noisily arranging children, nieces, nephews and cousins around tables, placing them like good china that we take out for special occasions.

These energetic offspring do not come over the river and through the woods anymore. They struggle past check-in counters and wrestle their gear into stuffed overhead bins. They migrate back on airlines whose owners pray with their overbooked hearts that the weather will hold.

It is a testimony to the joyful pull of family that Americans saturate the air and highways this week to return to the place they no longer live but still call home. To get home for the holidays.

Yet my old friend has touched, however gingerly, on that other truth about a country scattered over generations and geography. We have gone from family dailiness, from knowing every sock in our children's drawers, to welcoming them home to designated guest rooms.

We have visitation rights in each other's lives now, says my friend, a mother in 617 looking forward to greeting the children from 415 and 011. We keep in touch, we catch up, we say hellos and goodbyes. But we are still trying to learn how to compress "quality time" into small quantities.

My friend is not whining. Neither of us long to return to those wonderful yesteryears. The nests that once felt empty now feel roomy.

More to the point, we raised our children to look over the horizons. We told them, the world is yours, go for it. One by one they went for it, to 305 and 215 and 406. It is, after all, the American way.

So we e-mail and drop a dime and travel and are grateful at how much easier it is to keep in touch -- at least virtual touch -- today than when our parents were young. We take joy in the "kids" creating their own lives.

Yet at times an unpatriotic thought crosses our minds. Is this American way, this long distance family, an oddball tradition as unique to our people as Thanksgiving?

We are a nation of movers, founded by people on pilgrimages, populated by those who were willfully or forcibly uprooted. Our national mythology is based on the lure of kicking out and starting fresh. We moved west and west again on a promise of the last best place, which turned out to be just a way station.

Even Robert Frost's most familiar definition -- "home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in" -- has another subtext. Home is not where you stay.

From the middle of the age spectrum my friend and I have seen elders move from house to condo, north to south. On the other side of the generational sandwich we watch our children's words. They are "coming home" on Tuesday and "going back home" on Sunday.

Today many Americans find it hard to answer the question, "Where are you from?" Do we all hold a dual citizenship? Do the national laments about weaker family ties say less about our feelings than about our geography?

These questions hang lightly in the November air as we turn the subject from comings and goings of children to the advantages and disadvantages of chestnuts in the stuffing. This is the time, after all, of celebrating reunion, not musing about separation.

"The kids" are coming home. It is not the scarcity of food that brings us back to this full table. It is each other. And somewhere between the turkey and pies, we will settle down to savor togetherness.

On this day and in this restless country, we will stop and feast on family.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/25/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.