I remember hearing my mom talk about the way this song had just about everyone in tears at Christmas time in 1943. It's easy to see why: whether you were a GI stuck on the other side of the world in a war that looked like it might never end, or you were celebrating another bittersweet and lonely holiday back on the home front, wondering when or if you'd ever see your loved one(s) again, the idea of a simple, old-fashioned family Christmas must have seemed impossibly remote. People must have wondered if things would ever be normal again.
"I'll be home for Christmas," the song begins, "you can count on me." Then after recounting some of the joys to be anticipated - "snow, and mistletoe, and presents on the tree" it winds up with the grim reality: "I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams."
It's so much easier today, when getting home for the holidays no longer requires winning a war, merely putting up with some crowded airports and highways, but I suspect that ease, like familiarity, breeds, if not contempt, at least a casual disregard. Many people seem to treat the annual pilgrimage as a slightly tiresome duty, and it wasn't all that many years ago that I was guilty of just such an attitude. Oh, I'd go, all right, most years, anyway, but my journey was typically accompanied by an ironic bit of eye-rolling, as if to say, "Well, if it makes them happy I guess I can play along."
I don't know when things changed; my dad's death in 2004 certainly had something to do with making me realize that the family wouldn't always be there to come back to. But it was really a few years earlier that I found myself thinking, "You know, I actually kind of like my family." We were never especially close, though that's changed a bit as well since Dad died, and being the assiduous fault-finder that I've been known to be, I never had trouble pointing out the many reasons why it made no sense for us to be together as a family.
"If we weren't related, would I want to hang out with these people?" I'd ask myself, and the answer was usually, "Not particularly." But that's no longer the case; I found myself genuinely looking forward to seeing everybody this year. Even if I wasn't particularly keen on leaving New York, it was a sacrifice well worth making.
So Christmas Eve found me boarding the L train headed for JFK (change at Broadway Junction for the A, in case you're wondering), making my way through a surprisingly tranquil airport, and sitting though an unremarkable but slightly bumpy six and a half hour ride to California that took off and landed only a half hour late. Then another hour and 15 minutes on the Bay Area's own Toonerville Trolley (aka BART) and I was walking the darkened (except for the glow of Christmas lights) streets of El Cerrito. It was only 8 o'clock at night, but it felt like I had the entire city to myself, and that I was far more than 3,000 miles from the ever-bustling streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan.
But down at the bottom of a small hill I could see the lights of home, and there they all were, all except for niece Gabrielle, who's back in New York. I'd missed dinner, but they saved some for me, and though nothing special went on apart from washing the dinner dishes and sitting quietly near the Christmas tree and fireplace, it was worth every minute of the journey. How many more years will it be possible for all of us (minus Dad, of course) to be together? Probably not that many, and just as the day grows more precious as the sun begins its descent into the sea, and as we clutch at the dwindling days of summer when September heaves into view, it suddenly seems a lot more important to cherish each other while we can.
This is my first time back in California since I gave up that little room I kept for so long in Berkeley, and it was odd indeed to stay seated as the train sped past the Berkeley stop. Old habits die hard, too; when I boarded the train, I caught myself automatically heading for the second car from the front, the one that would line up with the stairs at the far end of the Berkeley station where I'd been disembarking for the past 17 years or so. Then I remembered that the El Cerrito exit was at the opposite end of the platform, and started to sigh, before asking myself, "Do I miss Berkeley at all?" Answer: not really.
I'll head over there tomorrow anyway, in between Christmas breakfast/present opening and Christmas dinner, to see a couple friends and celebrate Jewish Christmas (walking around the deserted streets) with Aaron Cometbus. Right now it's way past my bedtime, especially by Mom's House standards, and there's a spooky, chilly wind outside that's seeming to blow right through his house. In an inversion of the old song, I'd be safe, or at least warm, if I was in New York, but there's a different kind of warmth on offer here, and if nothing else, plenty of blankets. Merry Christmas, everyone.