One of the ornaments on my Christmas tree is a resin wreath with a farm yard in the center, and “North Dakota” inscribed at the bottom. The buildings and the curving driveway leading to them look very much like the North Dakota farm I call home – red barn on the right, white house on the left. Each year, I long to go home for Christmas, but in the last three decades I’ve been able to do that only once.
That farm is still my home, though, always lurking in the background of my mind, a symbol of permanence. More than one-hundred years ago my great-grandfather built the house for his family of ten children. My grandfather raised my dad and his two sisters there, then my dad stayed to raise his brood of six. My oldest brother took over the farm and added another home across the horse pasture from my parents. Now my nephew, farming with my brother, spends summer, spring, and fall weekends there with his family. That’s six generations, in case you lost count. My siblings and I have returned summer after summer (I may be the only person you know who vacations in North Dakota), introducing our kids to their roots. This place is in our collective blood. We are the farm, and the farm is us.
Go ahead and laugh, but when I come home to the farm now, as I turn off the highway onto two miles of gravel road, admiring the rolling fields of blooming flax or sunflowers, or ripening wheat, and then the farm comes into sight, it feels like the thought of Disneyland felt when I imagined it as a kid. Seriously. That’s what home does to us. It’s where we belong. It’s what we long for.
But even symbols of permanence are not permanent. The moment I left for college, a slow disintegration began. I turned into a Christmas visitor, then I married and moved 1700 miles away and began building new Christmas traditions with my family of four. That was good, but only temporary. It had the illusion of permanence, but my kids grew up. They left home and moved away and started their own families and their own traditions.
One thing that comforted me as I dealt with the jolt of the empty nest was the fact of my unchangeable home base on the farm in North Dakota. Mom and Dad were there, always waiting to welcome me home. Then Dad went to a nursing home and Mom moved away from the farm to be near him. When he died, she didn’t move back. It was too lonely and too isolated. So now my mental image of home is a ghostly empty house. In my childhood, Christmas meant decorating homemade cookies with Mom, Dad reporting that he heard Santa in the coal bin, and six excited kids around the tinsel-clumped tree on Christmas Eve. I can relive those memories whenever I want to. But if I went there right now there would be only stillness. The oven is cold, and there’s no Christmas dinner on the table. Even if I had been able to go home this Christmas, it would all be changed. Time and people moved on, and they’re not coming back.
You may be wondering if this slightly tearful remembrance has a point. Indeed it does, in the form of a timeworn cliché, but true nevertheless (that’s how it became a cliché, after all): Home Is Where the Heart Is.
My heart is more than one place these days. It’s hovering over that North Dakota farm, it’s here in this house with my husband, and it’s with my mom in her new place. A large chunk of it is minutes down the road with my daughter and son-in-law and delightful toddler grandson, and an equally large chunk is 2000 miles away with my son and daughter-in-law and adorable three-month-old grandson. My heart feels a little fragmented with all this separateness, all these homes. It’s painful. And I know that what exists now will change again. My heart may yet go many places, and pieces of it may scatter even farther.
Going home for Christmas becomes increasingly out of reach with each passing year. But I still long for home because that’s how God made me. I believe He gave me this longing so I’d come to recognize Him as my true, eternal, unchangeable home, the anchor of my heart. “Whom have I in heaven but you?” asks Psalm 73:25. “And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart (and my Home Sweet Home) may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
I didn’t get home for Christmas. But home is where the heart is, and my heart is forever home with Him.