NO PLACE LIKE HOME.
Heading home for Thanksgiving conjures emotions of every sort. In 1987, John Hughes deployed the formidable talents of Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles to tell the story about how important homecomings can be. For me, the movie is always a “stop down,” one of those films that stops your channel flipping. The minutes remaining in the film when you run across it equal the minutes of your life you must forfeit. There is nothing you can do about it; the film’s gravitational force exceeds your will to be productive.
I forfeited 43 minutes to the movie this Sunday afternoon. Truth be told, the first draft of this piece said I “wasted” those 43 minutes. On reflection though, I spent the time wisely. As always, the movie elevated my mood. This time around, in the context of the pandemic, the movie also sparked memories of the special homes that hosted so many Thanksgiving homecomings.
The memories tasted bittersweet because my parents recently sold their house in San Antonio to move to an all-the-frills retirement village. The sale portends a step into the unknown for holiday celebrations. The walks to burn off a few of the calories packed in at dinner will range over unfamiliar grounds. The neighbors we wave to and chat with will have new faces. Will this replacement nest smell different, look different, and be different enough that the nostalgia does not conjure so easily?
Growing up in a military family, the concern over homecoming to a specific place seems unusual. By the time I was 10, the Howens had lived in San Angelo, TX., Morris, IL, San Antonio, TX., Tallahassee, FL., Reykjavik, Iceland, Rochester, NY, and Fairfax, VA. For those counting, that itinerary adds up to seven stops in 10 years. I only recall our house from that last stop, a brick townhome that struggled to contain the energy produced by two young boys. There was a ball through the window incident and the novelty of having a Secret Service man on the presidential detail as a neighbor. Other than those snippets, nothing really sticks.
From Fairfax, however, we moved to Manassas, VA. More importantly, we transitioned from renting to owning. Sudley Place subdivision sat adjacent to the Bull Run battlefield in a neighborhood teeming with guys around my age. The Ben Lomond municipal pool could be reached by traversing an open field. If we were not swimming, we could walk the other direction to the basketball courts. The recently built streets more than accommodated packs of banana-seat bicycles. My parents had gone from chasing the American dream to owning a small piece of it.
A LEGEND IS BORN.
That status change expressed itself at holiday time. No longer confined to apartments and townhomes, Judy Howen could host parents and extended families. She did not assume the responsibility lightly, nor could she if her mother was coming. In the 48 years since we gathered around a table in Manassas, my mother claimed her place as one of America’s foremost practitioners in the art of the holiday dinner.
To rookies or the uninspired, a homecoming holiday means good turkey, stuffing and pie. A decent start and a requirement to be sure, but oh so much more goes into it. To begin with, a proper homecoming holiday event is not just dinner. Instead, a family must observe the four food phases.
If it is Thanksgiving, the weary travelers arrived late the evening before. They sleep in, until the breakfast aroma draws them from their beds. The kitchen table serves as a diner for family members straggling in and out. For the opener, breakfast casseroles and freshly baked pastries and breads calm our nerves. Next, of course, comes the main event. Around 2:30 p.m., we consume the best meal of the year with zero regard for our bodies. For big-leaguers like mom, that means time-honored family recipes plus one new concoction each year. Home made gravy, not store-bought. Onion sticks on top of the green beans. A choice of pies. In the mid-evening, after the game and a movie, we enjoy the reheating phase. By miracle of the microwave, the magic reappears. Finally, the coup de grace, the late-night snack. Milk and your personal combination of the day’s best.
Beyond those grazings, however, we have the non-meal details. At breakfast, did we really drink our orange juice out of a glass rather than a cup? If we are going to consume 6,000 calories at scheduled eatings, why are there snacks on the coffee table all day? How does the refrigerator hold all that food plus 13 different favorite drinks? Why are the napkins pressed? Was it difficult to perfectly mesh the candle smell and the food smell? All of these questions remain a mystery to me, but Judy began to find the answers in a split-level contemporary in Manassas, Va.
After three years in Manassas, Dad received orders for San Antonio. In a death-defying act of bravery, he traveled alone to San Antonio, selecting and purchasing a home his wife had never seen. I cannot even imagine. In any event, Dad chose well: a ranch style three bedroom, two bath with a community pool nearby. Again, the neighborhood swelled with playmates for Scott and me.
This is the home I grew up in; when the Beach Boys sing In My Room, the song means the spacious front bedroom with a large window. I had a desk, a record player and a bean bag chair in that room. Farah Fawcett and George “The Iceman” Gervin adorned the walls. Given that Mom has impeccable taste, she must have really loved me to allow those particular decorations.
While I only lived there full time for six years, my parents made 10215 Grenadier Way our home for two decades. In a very real way, that place is where I experienced the idea of homecoming, because it was the place where I returned for holidays.
Over the years, my parents built a large sunroom with a first-class pool table onto the back of the house. My Dad enjoyed a misspent youth and my brother was young enough to learn the game from Dad after I had left. So holidays now included me constantly losing games of pool to both of them. The parents also added the standard luxury of the Texas rising class, the home pool. In a unique twist, they connected their deck with that of the neighbors’ pool deck. The fence had a sliding gate that, when opened, created a huge party space.
I mention that tidbit because large gatherings mean many friends, which my parents certainly had. With them, Mom moved to the next level of holiday hostess, the rarefied air in which the truly gifted effortlessly mixes “family homecoming” with “stream of drop–ins.” Truly, the calculus for that type of effort is post-graduate level housewiving.
I was no good at pool, but I played my share of cards in high school with some great friends. During our college years, Thanksgiving night meant a reunion in the dining room trying to take each other’s money. What kind of Mom can host; indeed will host, that type of event after an all-day effort entertaining? The best Mom.
After Scott and I had left, Mom and Dad could live anywhere in San Antonio. They moved north, to rolling hills starting their mixed-use development cycle. Mom could decorate the house as she wanted and had some budget to work with. On top of that, Dad somewhat surprisingly transformed himself into an actual world-class photographer capable of putting stunning art on the walls. They moved to Birdsong West in the golf course community of Sonterra.
Mom had a landscaped yard, a two-level patio and a fireplace open to the two major living areas. She also had a mammoth stash of decorations and dishes. Homecomings transformed from festive to relaxed elegance. If the house in Manassas represented entry into the American dream, Birdsong served as its attainment, at least for two kids who just wanted to escape life at the paper mill in their shared hometown.
As much as I admired the finishing touches Mom applied to holidays at the new house, her hostess glory flowed from another stream. As we age, we harden. Whatever trait prevails in our character when young, dominates our character when older. That can be a risky proposition for some. Thankfully, Mom’s prevailing traits when young were graciousness and gratefulness. That spirit came to dominate our holidays.
More than the beautiful place settings, the breakfast aromas, the turkey with sides cooked as they had been for generations; even more than the friends and family who dropped by, one simple moment came to define my holidays. Circled around the table, holding hands, Mom offers a prayer that is both grateful and gracious. It is not her words, it is her spirit. And it is something I felt every time I walked in that house.
A FUTURE UNCERTAIN.
As I mentioned at the outset, Mom and Dad sold the house this year. After helping them move into the new place, I came to grips with the fact that the move made sense. The floor plan is perfect and the community is active. They have bought flexibility and security through their forever years, which is the icing of the cake for the American dream.
Still, the furniture is new. The living areas, while beautifully adorned, are smaller. COVID and a move some distance away insures that there will be no drop-ins. What is a homecoming to a home you have never stayed in like, exactly? What would I feel when I walked into the new home?
For a while, we debated whether we should even go and, maybe we should not, based on the rising cases. COVID would be a legitimate out. My wife and daughters have learned most of Mom’s tricks so we could avoid the drive and enjoy a great Thanksgiving here.
Nevertheless, we tested last Friday and quarantined from that point forward so we are about as safe as we can be. It will just be four of us as Scott must work. Why do it? Simple. At 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, the four of us will join hands and Mom will offer a prayer. I will be home.