Please, Come Home for Christmas. Mom said the Eagles song reminded her of me, the long lost daughter who had bolted from home for college at 17, and had wound up 3,000 miles away. My teenage self had wanted to get away, but a Colorado Christmas taught me that the mother-daughter bond could transcend time, space and nature’s whims.
HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. – La Reina de los Llanos, the Queen City of the Plains, was buried under snow, and lay muffled in a flat, morose quiet.
Denver had not yet been hit by the impending oil bust and “savings and loan crisis” of the 1980s, but it already looked depressed: White plumes of steam billowed from smokestacks, and swirled into a hazy, brownish frost that hung over the city. Deep snowdrifts masked the ugliness of junkyards and abandoned fields, and sidewalks were heaped high with dirty snow. Powdery snow slid across rooftops, and hung precipitously over the eaves of rundown row houses, squat brick bungalows, and the narrow Victorians built by coal barons at the turn of the century.
This was home. I had grown up in the Centennial State. I knew its sights, sounds, smells, history and legends. It was my ancestral homeland, where generations of my family had lived. My internal compass pointed west to the mountains, east to the Great Plains, north to Wyoming, and south to the sage and piñon covered scrublands of New Mexico. To find my bearings, no matter where I was in the world, I searched for the long, jagged shadow of the Sangre de Cristo range, and the ancient solidity of the igneous rock peaks the Ute called Wahatoyas – the breasts of the world.
Turns out, without those looming chichis, I was lost.
My mother was at the wheel. She had driven hours to get us to Denver, and was negotiating icy highways and roads with the aplomb and unruffled demeanor of a native. Sitting quietly next to Mom in the front seat was my now ex-husband, an American-educated engineer from Venezuela who wanted a panoramic view of Colorado’s Front Range urban corridor.
Our 3-year-old daughter, Lauren, and I were huddled in the back seat, bundled up in borrowed winter gear, and trying not to get carsick. We were all hoping Mom would get us to the airport on time so we could fly back to Venezuela. We had just spent the holidays with my family, and were ready to go home, where it was warm and lush, and we didn’t have to shovel driveways, scrape ice-encrusted windshields or worry about lethal, invisible black ice.
Christmas had been nice. Mom and Nana had cooked all of my holiday favorites: green chile, pumpkin empanadas, and biscochitos sprinkled with anise. We had played in the snow, gone skiing, and our daughter had chattered incessantly until adults marveled at how “smart” she was to speak such good Spanish.
As we drove across Denver toward the airport, the Eagles version of “Please Come Home for Christmas” started playing on the radio, and Don Henley’s mellifluous voice filled my mother’s overheated car with the rock-infused essence of modern Americana.
“I think of you every time I hear this song,” Mom said as she glanced back at me quickly before changing lanes. A long city bus covered in filthy slush and filled with tired-looking downtown workers groaned as it passed us on the left.
“You’re kidding, right?” I responded from the backseat, flinching at the unpleasant tone of my own voice.
I was 23 years old, married, a young mother and living abroad, but my teenage self had responded to my mother’s tender confession.
I glanced at my mother’s rearview mirror, and tried to imagine her hearing the Eagles song, thinking of me, and wishing I were home for Christmas. I had my doubts. I had bolted from home at 17 to go to college, and to get as far away from my family and my past as possible. My psychological separation had not been pretty. I still remember the stubborn clashes, scornful comments, and selfish barbs that had punctuated my free-ranging teenage rebellion and angst.
Like so many other girls before me, I had pitched myself awkwardly and headlong out of the maternal home and into the wild world immortalized by Cat Stevens. By that Christmas, I had gained some traction and perspective. Apparently, I had not fully severed the umbilical cord.
I glanced over at my own little girl, who was clutching a new Cabbage Patch doll, and I wondered if I would get pay-backs with her. (I did. Big time. About a decade later. But that’s another story in the mother-daughter continuum.)
Besides stirring old memories, being home had dredged up old wounds, too. As the classic first-born child, I had played to type, and had been an opinionated and lofty adolescent.
Between the ages of 14 and 17, I had argued constantly with my stepfather, and rejected what I thought were his attempts to quash my budding feminism, and my deep skepticism about organized religion. Even though he had rescued Mom from a miserable marriage to my father, and had agreed to raise us as his own, I saw my stepfather as an insurgent, an emotional usurper who had stolen my mother’s affections.
“Lengua de hacha,” I remember retorting once after he had tossed an emotional bomb my way. He had reached his wit’s end with me and my teenage attitude, and had told me I was “just like my father.” Those were fighting words, and I didn’t care that he was a World War II survivor, and had served in France and England. This was war. It was years before life humbled me sufficiently enough to appreciate all he had done for me.
Sí, señor. I was home for the holidays during the Christmas Eve Blizzard, and I had some unfinished business to take care of.
Mom pulled up to the curved entrance and passenger-loading area outside Stapleton, and my husband jumped out, took off his heavy coat and gloves, and tossed them into the backseat before heading indoors to check our luggage and get our boarding passes. My mother, my daughter and I lingered a bit before a security guard suggested that my mother park her car in the covered garage so she could come back and meet us at our gate to say goodbye. It was the pre-911 era, and security was much laxer at U.S. airports than it is today. As she stood next to her car that winter day, Mom held up a finger and told me, “I’ll be right back.”
My little girl and I watched her pull away, then went inside to warm up and find my husband among the hundreds of milling travelers lined up at ticket counters. Because of the snowy conditions, we were running late, and I was worried we would miss our flight. Mom still had not appeared when airline employees began seating passengers on our flight to Houston, where we would connect to Miami, and onward to Caracas, before ending our journey in Ciudad Guayana.
Each flight would take me farther away from Colorado, my childhood home, my mother, my stepfather, my sisters and brothers, my grandparents, my uncles and aunts, and my unsatisfactory past. Each leg of the trip would become more exotic than the last, and take me closer to an idealized version of myself.
But, that’s what I had wanted, right?
Our row was called, and my husband boarded the plane with our daughter, but I hung around hoping my mother would make it in time to say goodbye one last time. The 3,000-mile trips between Venezuela and Colorado were expensive, and I didn’t know when I’d see her again. We had parted abruptly, and I wasn’t ready to leave just yet. Where was she? Had she gotten stuck in a snowbank? Did her car break down? Is she driving around aimlessly looking for a good spot? Had she gotten lost, figured it was too late, and decided to drive home? Por Dios, I needed to feel her freckled cheek against mine again. I needed to look into her large eyes to see the unconditional love she offered up so generously. I needed to feel her soft arms around me. Like a baby bat clinging to a rock face in an abandoned mine, I needed to hear her voice, and have her hear mine so she could home in on my location, pick out my voice out of millions, and feed my soul.
I needed to hear her laugh. I needed to smell her perfume. I needed to thank her for everything. Damn it. Coño. I needed Mom.
An airline employee tapped me on the shoulder and told me it was time to board. Halfway down the walkway, I heard the hollow footfalls of someone running behind me. I turned, and there she was.
Mom ran toward me, and we hugged, and burst into to tears. We clung to each other, frozen in time, unsure when we’d meet again. We hugged as much as we could, and said “I love you” as many times as we could. We raised our heads and looked over at the young blonde who had escorted Mom down the ramp. She was crying, too, and the three of us laughed at the sadness of mothers and daughters going their separate ways.
As Mom walked away, I soaked up her vanishing outline and the essence of the woman who had brought me into the world.
Mom, I’m so glad I came home for Christmas. Next time, you don’t even have to say please.
A version of this essay was published at www.salon.com.