The Last California Christmas

They say you can never really go home again.
Robert and Judy Millner are seen at home at Christmas with their daughter.

Some experts say that you’re finally a grown-up, no more pretending, when you, the child, assume the responsibility of hosting Christmas dinner.

Next month, my husband, son, and I will travel to California for what is likely to be our last Christmas at my parents’ house on the West Coast.

Notice how I say likely. Even though my father has contacted moving companies for quotes and set a rough timetable for moving east, I still can’t totally believe it’s happening.

Since starting my own family, I’ve returned to California at least twice each year, sometimes more often. Though I’ve lived on the East Coast for nearly as long as I ever lived in California, as soon as the plane touches down in Los Angeles, I feel an unmistakable sense of returning home. It’s some magical combination of the bright light and cloudless, blue sky, along with the gray-tinged smog and endless stretches of traffic, no matter the time of day.  

I left California at 18, just about as quickly as I could. With laser-eyed precision, I applied only to colleges on the East Coast, eventually landing at Smith. Though I went home a few summers during those years, I mostly stayed away; something about the four distinct seasons, a particular type of ambition, and, later, New York City quickly won my heart.

I grew up in a politically conservative, fairly unremarkable suburb of Los Angeles. It’s about a 30-minute drive from anything remotely interesting. I believed then, and probably rightly so, that to remain there would mean a slow death of my spirit. I got my driver’s license on the day I turned 16 and spent the next two years in my red Volkswagen Jetta crisscrossing large swaths of Southern California. Its hundreds of miles of freeways remain freshly imprinted in my mind.

It’s not that my parents and I weren’t close; quite the contrary. But the closeness we’ve achieved as grown-ups has been a hard-fought victory. There’s a certain ease that was simply incomprehensible during the years when we lived under the same roof. It would never have occurred to me that they would willingly uproot their lives and move 3,000 miles to be nearer to me — impossible still that I would have been the one to suggest it.

Very soon, our relationship won’t be restricted to phone calls and sporadic visits. And for that, I am thankful. Also, for the courage it will take for them to move to a part of the world where freezing cold winters, entirely new wardrobes, and unlimited baby-sitting await.

My parents’ families have lived in Los Angeles for seven generations. Sunshine is in our blood. They’re in for what’s sure to be an adjustment. At 66 and 68, their willingness to relocate is quite remarkable. (The trauma of last year’s winter comes quickly to mind.)  

In January, once Christmas and New Year’s have come and gone, my husband, son, and I will pack up our suitcases, winter coats at the ready, and drive away from my parents’ house for the last time. Tears will undoubtedly be shed. Our son, Theo, now 2, will remember his first three Christmases in California only by listening to stories and looking at pictures. A daughter arrives in March.

Since becoming a parent, I’ve become acutely aware of the passage of time, and how swiftly it goes. In addition to sharing suppers and everyday life with our children, I’m eager for them to grow up with grandparents nearby. Newly retired and in good health, my parents have an uncertain number of years ahead, and I want us to make the best of them.

As my mother boxes up her house, poring through six decades of assorted possessions (as of last week, she’s finally given away the white wicker furniture from my childhood bedroom), a half-dozen boxes of Christmas decorations will soon come to live in our basement, where they’ll await revival at this time next year. And, if she’s willing, I will happily designate the task of preparing Christmas dinner to my mother, for next and all future years.

I’d be lying if I said I won’t miss returning to California, to a lifetime’s worth of memories safely contained under one roof — to the beautiful and the painful parts that bind us together. Their house was for a long time but a plane ride away, where I could dive under the freshly laundered covers and regain the strength that New York had taken out of me, if even for a short time before returning to real life.

There’s a certain safety in knowing you can go home again, if even for a brief visit during the holidays, where you can again be surrounded by the people who have known and loved you the longest. But next Christmas, at home in East Hampton, new traditions and new memories await.