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By Shelley Murphy
“Home for the Holidays” isn’t my favorite seasonal song to listen to, but it is my favorite phrase to hear this time of year.
I’m using a makeshift advent calendar to countdown the days until both my boys’ dash through our door to celebrate the holidays at home. For kids of all ages, especially parents of college freshmen, it is the most wonderful time of the year.
I’m ready for my boys’ holiday homecomings, and our festive decorations are up; but as excited as I am, I also know what goes up must come down. I’m not a Grinch, but a seasoned mom of college kids. As eager as I am for their December arrivals, I realize their January departures appear faster than teens to a house party.
Parents fortunate to have their freshmen college kids home for Thanksgiving got a taste of not only turkey, but their first holiday goodbye. Typically, Thanksgiving sendoffs see fewer tears shed because parents know in just a few weeks their college-age offspring return home for the long winter break.
A semester into the freshman school year, with two solid goodbyes under their belts, many parents might think they’ve mastered the poker-faced farewell. They survived the pinnacle of goodbyes—the freshman college drop-off—and sailed through a holiday separation.
I’m risking another Grinch-like comparison, but for parents of first-time freshmen I must share this holiday heads-up: parting with your student in January delivers an aching sucker punch.
There’s little talk about the January farewell and many parents face it unprepared. Perhaps it’s the novelty and excitement of a freshman’s first winter break that masks the reality of their presence as temporary and the fact they now consider another place home.
When my older son returned to college for his freshman spring semester, after a month at home, I was blindsided by the painful goodbye. No one told me my winter heartache would rival that of his summer sendoff.
Today, with a recent college graduate residing in another state and a sophomore in college, goodbyes are rooted in the rhythm of our relationships.
Knowing that my boys’ homecomings are fleeting and that I’ll face another farewell doesn’t diminish the joy I feel when they return. I’m not that morose. Once they rush through the door, I push January out of my mind and revel in their presence.
I welcome the chaos that follows my sons’ arrivals: their friends racing to our pantry for food, cheering during board games and rooting for college football teams.
I’ve even become accustomed to their vampire-like existence. I’m no longer startled when I start my morning walking downstairs and pass someone walking upstairs to end their night. The joyful clatter of the season turns our quiet empty nest upside-down and into a noisy energized home. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
For several weeks I savor my house full of holiday cheer. I’m lulled back to a time when the four of us lived under one roof and we gathered together to share meals, laugh at inside jokes and bicker and tease each other.
When my kids come home, I stop counting down days but the calendar doesn’t. The calendar is cruel. Too soon it’s January, and the melancholy creeps in with college kids’ conversations that start, “When do you go back?”
I may have become accustomed to saying goodbye to my sons, but it doesn’t ever make it any easier. After ringing in the New Year, my boys will drive and fly away, leaving my empty nest eerily quiet but littered with decorations and debris that I will sift through to find forgotten singular socks, phone chargers, sports caps and water bottles.
The song says it best: For the holidays you can’t beat home, sweet home. In January, I’ll miss the seasonal song but know it will return in time, just like my sons.
Shelley Murphy has lived in San Clemente with her husband for the past 17 years, where she raised her two sons. She’s a freelance writer and has been a contributor to the SC Times since 2006.