No Matter How Far Away You Roam: Making the Most of the Holiday Season in My New Home

I’m writing this blog on my grandmothers ninetieth birthday. It’s the first time I haven’t been home to hand her a birthday card. In fact, this holiday season, I’m further from home than ever before. 

My family has always been a living, breathing vision from a far-fetched, stereotypical New England storybook. 

Following the unexpected passing of my grandfather, my grandmother raised her six children in her tiny home on Valentine Street in the blue collar, textile mill-dominated city of Fall River, Massachusetts. As they grew, they built around her — both figuratively and literally. Today, her single home has become a makeshift compound for our family. Made up of seven individual homes, our little compound has buzzed with life since I could form memories. 

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When I’m able to return home now, which happens less often than I’d like, every room in each of those seven houses flashes with stories from my childhood, where I found myself in the company of fourteen cousins who operated more like brothers and sisters. Those stories seem to be written in the most vivid and picturesque language when they’re framed by the garland and decorative lighting that accompanies this time of year. 

In my first year in my new home of Yakima, Washington, I’ve discovered that I don’t have to be on Valentine Street, in my native city of Fall River, Massachusetts or even around my family to feel the power of childhood holiday memories. 

Instead, I’ve learned that even a single, seemingly inconsequential element can ignite my mental time machine. In those moments, the memories can be wondrous and heartwarming. However, at this distance, they often have the power to be heartbreaking and instill a sense of loss. A perfect example of this took place on my first Thanksgiving in Washington. 

As I stood by the oven, nervously awaiting the results of trying to replicate my grandmother’s handwritten Thanksgiving recipes, the smell of her house wafted over me. Instantly, I could feel the excitement of being in her house on Thanksgiving as a kid, eavesdropping on the conversations of my aunts and uncles and roughhousing with my cousins. As the stuffing cooked and the smell of Thanksgiving dinner filled my new home, it was almost as if I could feel my grandmother’s kitchen tiles under my socked feet. But I was not in my grandmother’s house, and my family was far out of reach. A phone call could not replicate the feeling of being around them on Thanksgiving. 

In reality, nothing could replicate that feeling. 

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The smell of the Christmas wreath hung on my new front door, three thousand miles from the front door that made the smell a memory that would last forever, transported me to a time when I had to look up at my dad, handing him ornaments that were destined for the top branches of our Christmas tree. 

It’s strange reliving these memories away from the people that made them come to life. 

It’s strange being away from home for the holidays. 

Being away from the people who made them memorable is difficult, but when it becomes hard to accept that I’m in a new place, and that my house won’t be buzzing with the sound of my unusual family, I now focus on the next memories. 

For the first time in my life, I won’t find myself at my Aunt Joan’s house this Christmas Eve, watching the next generation of our family enjoy the traditions that I was able to enjoy for so many years. Instead, I’ll have to create my own tradition, with my new family in a new place. 

I won’t be eating Christmas dinner in my grandmother’s dining room, surrounded by the walls that watched my family eat Christmas dinner since my grandparents moved in and started a family. 

Instead, I’ll be cooking a Christmas dinner that is capable of creating a timeless recollection. 

I wish that I could wake up on Christmas morning, walk downstairs and be greeted by the warm smiles of my mom and dad again. Instead, I’ll be wrapping the gifts this year and creating those memories for a new generation to someday reflect on. 

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Life, combined with time, almost always results in the creation of distance. Distance between ourselves and those we once spent so many precious moments with. Distance between the truth and the hazy memories we hold, where crisp details once stood. That time, however, is an opportunity for us to experience new moments that ultimately become our next lifetime memories. 

My version of my grandmother’s Thanksgiving dinner will become the taste that connects my new family to a festive, late-November memory. The smell of pine may forever be synonymous with the Christmas tree we’ll put in our own living room this year, and the moments that take place around it. 

I can’t be home for the holidays this year, but I can do my part to ensure that the same joy and excitement that comes to me from the smell of Thanksgiving dinner or dangling ornaments gets tucked away in a similar “happy memories” folder in the imaginations of the people I’ll share this holiday with. 

No matter where you find yourself this holiday season, you can do the same. 

I know the power of the scent of the wreath on my new front door, because I’ve felt it transport my mind across 3,000 miles and over 26 years of experiences. Someday, that same smell will serve as the time machine to the memories I’m creating now, for my new family. 

I just hope that the memories I help create are as sweet as the ones I find myself drifting away in this holiday season.