There was a time when I loved heading home to New York for Christmas. Despite leaving behind the calm warmth of Los Angeles for the harsh winter chill of the city, I relished in the comfort of family and the traditions that welcomed me back. After a five-hour flight, I would arrive at JFK with a smile on my face and eyes eagerly darting through the crowd in search of my parents and nieces. Like clockwork, there they were awaiting my arrival, my two adorable toddler aged nieces holding up handmade signs that read “Welcome home Uncle Hollywood.”
My parents clearly thrilled to have their baby boy and only son home. My mother beaming from ear to ear, offering a welcoming kiss accompanied by a warm embrace that masked the frigid air blowing through the terminal. It was a welcome I cherished.
A native New Yorker, I was born and raised in Queens. After graduating from college, I headed west in my mid-20s to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. The allure of Hollywood was too much to resist, but so was my annual trip home for the holidays.
Upon arrival, my childhood home greeted me with an onslaught of holiday merriment. The large living room bay window ablaze with lights and a festive winter scene, while inside the house was cozy and inviting. Once settled in, my mother and I would decorate the tree together, while Dad sat in judgment. Then I’d hang the picture cards received from family and friends only after critiquing each one as my mother laughed aloud at my assessment of their wardrobe selections and scenery. On Christmas Eve we attended midnight mass as a family, then on Christmas morning, my parents and I enjoyed breakfast whilst serenaded by my mother’s favorite holiday songs of Perry Como or Enya. By midday, my older sisters would arrive with their families and together we would enjoy a day full of mom’s home cooking, family fun and a seemingly endless gift exchange.
Over the years, the only changes were the faces that greeted me at the airport. At first, my nieces stopped making signs and then by their teenage years, stopped meeting me altogether. But my mom and dad continued to make the trek to play greeter and chauffeur regardless of whether my flight landed mid-morning or at midnight. Then six years ago, everything changed when my mother passed away, losing her battle with a rare lung disease that silenced her and the rest of our family. My annual flight from LaLaLand to the Big Apple suddenly lost its luster, my oversized luggage now weighing far less than my heavy heart.
That first Christmas after my mother’s passing, I don’t even recall who met me at the airport. The house, despite Dad’s best efforts, felt devoid of holiday cheer. I decorated the tree alone. When I hung the picture cards, my critiques were no longer audible, but I still heard my mother’s laughter in my head as tears rolled down my face. Christmas morning, Dad and I sat in silence, the house hollow, and the space under the tree barren. My mother no longer there to excitedly urge me to see what Santa had brought. For the first time ever, we spent the afternoon outside of our home and joined my cousins who kindly offered to host.
Since then, we’ve slowly adjusted to a new normal. Now upon my arrival, either Dad greets me half asleep or fully irritated by airport logistics or my sister honks the car horn curbside, while ranting and raving about traffic. Although I’m now in my 40s, my sisters graciously insist on playing Santa, ensuring there are still gifts under the tree for me to open. The house feels less empty, but no matter what we do or how hard we try, there is still a void.
Last year, I promised myself I would not go home for Christmas. I desperately longed for a change to help erase that sense of loss. Being single, my only options were to either celebrate the holiday season solo or head east once again. Inevitably, I found myself back home.
My mother’s absence as always was still felt, but something changed yet again. As I took in my surroundings, I had a moment of clarity. Yes, our traditions have changed, our holiday wishes have altered, our faces, dare I say it, have aged, but the people I loved the most were present. It wasn’t about where I spent the holiday, but with whom I spent it that mattered most. And although my mother is physically gone, her presence still very much remains. Change is ever occurring, but the one thing that remains constant is the feeling that there truly is no place like home for the holidays.
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