‘I won’t be returning to Ireland for Christmas, but I’ll feel ‘at home’ nonetheless’
After so many years as an emigrant, I belong here in America, writes Janet Kalinowski
When people ask, as they invariably do to emigrants in December: “Are you going home for Christmas?” I say no, with just a little misgiving. I’m not going home but I’ll be at home nonetheless; because, after so many years as an emigrant, I belong here, in America, too.
The dictionary defines home as, among other things, the place where one lives permanently. Therefore, strictly speaking, home, for me, is no longer Ireland but Frederick Maryland, a small “civil war” town at the foot of the Catoctin Mountains.
But as the debate about emigration resurfaces, such an admission can begin to feel a little bit like betrayal. The emigrant argument, particularly in the wake of the economic collapse, is fraught with emotional, cultural and political implications. There’s often now a stronger focus on those who leave unwillingly, who feel forced out; and on those who refuse to go, determined to stay and make Ireland home: a focus which is deeply rooted in a troubled past and difficult present.
These are undeniably important aspects of the argument, but ones that long-term, settled emigrants, or those who simply wanted to go, sometimes have difficulty making peace with. Most of us, who have been away for many years, or who positively chose to live elsewhere, don’t love Ireland any less for having left; we still love our families as much if not more and we certainly don’t lack compassion for those, especially elderly parents, left behind.
But making peace with a new home doesn’t mean breaking faith with the old one. If I live to be a hundred, Christmas will always be the fat Santa Claus with the skinny pipe cleaner legs who hung on our tree at home for years, benignly watching childhoods pass, those huge bumper issues of the Radio Times and the RTE Guide with their shiny, slippery pages and the family I shared it all with back then.
But it’s also snow on the mountains, frosted pink as the sun sets and getting my tongue around the ubiquitous and sanitized “Happy Holidays;” and the people I share Christmas with now. For emigrants who have been away for a long time, or those who willingly left in search of something new, home necessarily becomes a more elastic concept; it’s here and there, it’s coming from and going to. It expands to include the new, not to bury the old but to live alongside it.
Emigrants lead a kind of kaleidoscopic life, shifting between small tragedies and triumphs, as age or circumstance alters the view. Few haven’t caught a glimpse from the corner of their eye of the ghostly selves who might have been; few haven’t wondered what if? But there is a terrible danger in living a what-if life for too many years; suspended between two worlds, we may end up at home nowhere at all, which is surely the saddest outcome.
Emigrants who are lucky enough to put down new roots mustn’t be wary of living their life for fear of seeming callous or opportunistic, or somehow less Irish than they once were. The simple acceptance that where I am, I am, can bring a certain peace. While we shouldn’t lose sight of the pain emigration can cause to those both at home and away, a chance to be happy should never be overlooked. Seamus Heaney summed this dilemma up perfectly, I think, when he said:
“How perilous is it to choose/not to love the life we’re shown.”
Life, wherever it is, is a gift, shown to us only once; be at home for Christmas, wherever you are.