‘You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.’
Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again
It is often said you can’t go home again. This Christmas I tried to do just that, and came to understand better exactly what is meant by the phrase.
Things change, and you can’t do anything about it. For the past few years I’d been trying to make my own Christmas traditions, away from the familiar ones of my childhood and adolescence, with my partner and my cats with whom I shared a house, in a different town, with different friends. There was a conscious effort to have as little as possible to remind me of the Christmases of old.
But things didn’t quite work out, as things often don’t, and with that life as lost as the receipts for the gifts you want to take back, this year I had a choice between Christmas alone and Christmas with my family. I make it sound like that was a choice between a rock and a hard place – nothing of the kind – but to go home to my family was the obvious and preferred choice, only I did so with caution in case I stir up the vague ghosts of Christmas past.
The Christmas of my childhood is a picture postcard, framed behind glass in the eye of my memory. It is an untouchable, perfect, magical time. It also varied very little. The routine was kept to year in, year out. We would have to wait until ‘he’ had been, although as the years passed it became apparent that ‘he’ did not exist and what we were waiting for was our grandmother and uncle’s arrival to watch us open our presents. When this was done with the excitement appropriate to children, we would get ready and go next door, where the adult neighbours would have a festive drink and the children – there were lots of children on my street where I grew up – would play. Early afternoon we would travel to our grandmother’s house to enjoy Christmas dinner with my uncles, aunties, cousins and occasionally my cousins’ boyfriends – my cousins were a bit older than me – followed by party and board games.
This time, we were more insular. Those children on my street are now also grown, and some have families of their own, as does a cousin, and are beginning traditions of their own. We went through some of the moves, like drinking with the neighbours, but otherwise it bore little resemblance to my sepia tinged memories.
My parents were never rich, and as children my sister and I were never spoiled, but at this time of year they made us feel special. Now I have a better appreciation of the value and cost of items, I understand how generous they were with us. I recall one year I had asked for a SEGA Master System – not a top of the range gaming system for the time, but one, I reasoned, within the possibilities of my parents budget – but when it came to Christmas day I found they had forked out for its better, more pricey big brother the Mega Drive. Another year I recall having opened all our presents and being thoroughly pleased with our haul, only to have, a little later, our dad wheel in a mountain bike each. Shallow and consumerist, you could accuse me, but you don’t understand anything else when you’re a child.
But what I am bemoaning the loss of isn’t the monetary value of Christmas, or the fact I’m now perceived to be of an age where moccasin slippers or Marks and Spencer aftershave seem an appropriate gift. Where it hit home most was at dinner, with only five people at the table. Five people whom I love and cherish, but it just highlights who isn’t there.
You can’t go home because you want everything to be as it was, as if you’d never been away, relatives had not passed, and you lived a simpler life, protected from your worries. And at Christmas it’s the hardest time of all to go home.