Home for the Holidays: A Thanksgiving Pilgrimage to Connecticut
In my family, as in many families around the U.S., Thanksgiving has always been a day to gather with loved ones and celebrate family and home. So when I moved from Connecticut and began to raise a family in California three decades ago, my parents would often cross the country to celebrate the holiday with us. Eight years ago, when this trip became too difficult for them, I reversed the route to celebrate with them in Connecticut.
My dad passed away two weeks before Thanksgiving in 2007, and since then, this journey has become an even more precious rite. One trip in particular, two years ago, crystallized the meaning of this pilgrimage for me.
That Thanksgiving was special for a couple of reasons. My daughter, Jenny, had been studying in graduate school on Long Island and had been able to join my mom and me for the previous two holidays. But she would be graduating in June and moving back to California, so this would be her last East Coast Thanksgiving, at least for a while. In addition, my best friend from childhood, Philip Porter, had invited us all to join his family's celebration.
Jenny picked me up at the airport in New York the day before Thanksgiving, and as we drove into the rolling hills of west-central Connecticut, I felt like a puzzle piece clicking naturally into place. I marveled at how deeply the landscape -- forests and ponds and round town greens, high-steepled churches and white clapboard houses with manicured lawns and sheltering trees -- had become a part of me.
I had grown up in just such a setting in Middlebury, and when we moved my mom to an assisted-living facility in 2007, we found a similarly situated place in neighboring Southbury. That afternoon, as Mom and Jenny admired the woods and pond outside her new home, I discovered a passage I'd written in my journal 20 Thanksgivings before: "This is not the tourist's New England of blazing fall foliage. It's the native's New England of stark brown branches tinged with the barest tips of red against a pewter sky. A cold, dry wind slices through the trees. The grass emanates a shaggy, melancholy gray-green. The sun casts a threadbare shawl over the bony branches in the last light of day, and the sky streaks at sunset with icy rose and purple tatters like some wind-torn medieval banner. Darkness falls at 4 p.m.
"And yet somehow it exhilarates me. Mom and Dad and I take long walks through these winter-tinged afternoons, and the longer we look, the more we find a profoundly moving beauty in that stark bareness, an amazing range of colors in those grays and browns."
Jenny and my mom began to relive summer visits to Middlebury. Jenny remembered how Grandma and Grandpa would toss Frisbees around our basketball court-sized backyard for she and her brother, Jeremy, to run after. Mom recalled the picnics they'd impetuously concoct on the weathered picnic table under the massive oak tree -- plopping fresh-shucked corn into boiling water as Jenny and Jeremy raced down to the bee-buzzing raspberry bushes, returning breathless with overflowing baskets just as the tuna salad sandwiches, corn and lemonade appeared. I remembered how Dad would pretend to chase his giggling grandkids and how his eyes would glitter as he watched them fly.
Mom laughingly reminded me of how, when I was young, we were all supposed to help with Thanksgiving dinner, but somehow she always ended up creating and choreographing the cranberry sauce and stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn, peas, gravy, crisp-skinned turkey, and pumpkin pie while my brother and I joined the throng of neighborhood kids playing football at the Porters' house up the street.
The Porters didn't live up the street anymore, but when we arrived at Phil's house the next day, we found that his mom and dad were there, as were his brother and sister and their clans. It was a time-travel tableau and a boisterous, bustling, laugh-filled family feast just as Thanksgivings should be, with many a childhood misadventure related. "Remember," Phil's dad guffawed at one point, "the time the boys fell through the ice into the swimming pool and thought they were going to drown?"
"Oh, yes!" my mom exclaimed, her voice skipping with delight. "When they came dripping back to our house, they dumped half your pool into our kitchen, right in the middle of our holiday party!"
"I haven't laughed that much in years," Mom said as we went home that night.
The following day, Jenny drove us to Middlebury. Our former neighbors had recently moved and their house was for sale, so we parked in their driveway and gazed at our old house. After a while, Mom urged Jenny and me to wander into the woods while she waited in the car.
I hadn't been back there in a decade, and I wondered what tricks memory might have played. But soon we came upon the mysterious rectangular stone foundations that had seemed like ancient ruins to a child's mind. Then the rotting boards and wire mesh of a chicken coop appeared, and I told Jenny how the battered door with the fading skull and crossbones -- "Look, it's still here!" -- had convinced me pirates once lived there. We stepped over streams and toppled trunks, and I talked about how I used to love to watch the yellow-green buds unfolding like secret messages in spring and how I'd thrash through the crackling leaf-carpets of fall. I told her about bounding rabbits and spindly-legged deer, about the beavers we were convinced were there but never saw and about the dreams that took root in that seemingly endless expanse of rock and tree.
When we got back and told Mom about our journey, her eyes glistened. "When you were little, we used to go for walks in those woods," she said. "You'd call them adventures and you'd say, 'Can we go on an adventure now?' Sometimes we'd see foxes or deer and sometimes we'd just listen to the wind in the trees. I loved that."
We sat in stillness in the deepening dusk.
In a sense, nothing extraordinary happened that Thanksgiving. But in another sense, something deep and abiding was revealed to me. I understood the fuller meaning of home. Home is a physical structure. It is the people who lived and live in that structure. And it is the memories that were born there and that we carry with us, wherever we go. Home is the house and the woods and the touch football games, the Porters and the picnics and the treacherous pool. Home is my wife and kids and my mom and dad and all the celebrations we shared -- and share still.
And I realized that this is what I'm honoring each Thanksgiving when I make my Connecticut pilgrimage: I'm giving thanks for the home that I carry in my head and in my heart, that roots me when I teeter, lifts me when I tire, connects me to all my earthly adventures past and present and to come, the home that embraces me -- and the whole world I cherish -- in the bare boughs of love.