Home for Christmas

As a child in boarding school, I always looked forward to going home to the mission station over the longer Christmas break. We had fun with a variety of seasonal celebrations at school, but I wanted to be home for Christmas to be with my family and enjoy the traditional missionary get-togethers, gift exchanges and mission church celebrations.

After boarding school, the next time I was away from home in the months and weeks leading up to Christmas was in 1968 during my first year of graduate school at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho. As a survivor of boarding school accustomed to being away from home for extended periods of time, I was completely unprepared for the severe attack of homesickness I experienced in those early weeks of grad school. Stuck in Idaho all alone with no one I knew, it seemed like December couldn’t come soon enough. I needed and I desperately wanted to go home. Quitting grad school would have been an option, I suppose, but I never seriously considered it because it would have been humiliating to admit defeat. After all, I had survived boarding school and I was just a child then. One way I coped was by buying my roundtrip plane ticket home as soon as I could scrape together enough money – probably sometime in October. Somehow knowing I had that ticket in my possession helped me persevere through the homesickness. The numerous letters I wrote and received from my mother and college friends scattered all over the place along with the busyness of adjusting to graduate school and teaching freshman English Composition also helped.

Then in the last days heading into the holiday break, winter hit the Pacific Northwest and snow was forecast for right around the time I was supposed to fly out of Spokane, Washington, about 80 miles north of Moscow. I was in a panic. After having saved that plane ticket all those weeks, desperately hanging onto the knowledge that I would be going home again, I could hardly bear the thought that my travel plans were in danger of being disrupted. The day of my flight was snowy. I worried that I wouldn’t even be able to get to Spokane and would miss my flight east. So I took an earlier bus, figuring that it would be better to be in Spokane than stuck in Moscow. I was operating on instinct and out of desperation, rather than with any rational plan in mind. The bus didn’t go to the airport, so I had to find transportation from the bus station to the airport. I think I took a cab, but I don’t remember for sure.

I arrived at the airport many hours ahead of my flight. As the afternoon and evening progressed, flights were delayed and then delayed some more. The Spokane airport in those days was pretty small, with nothing to do, plus I was all alone and an introvert besides. I paced the airport repeatedly, trying to fill the time. I don’t remember striking up conversations with anyone, except perhaps to ask whether there was any new information about when our flight would leave. The evening and night dragged on interminably, and my anxiety continued as I wondered if and when I would get home. Finally, sometime in the wee hours of the next morning, my plane finally took off, and I made it home (although I don’t remember how I let my parents know when I was arriving in Harrisburg).

At the end of the Christmas break, during which I spent much-needed time with family and friends, I made the return trip to Moscow. While I was gone, Moscow had severe cold weather, registering a record-breaking 50 degrees below zero on December 30. When I returned, my plane was not able to land in Spokane due to snow, and continued on to its final destination in Seattle. The airline put all the Spokane passengers on a bus across Washington back to Spokane, but I still had to find a way to Moscow. I hitched a ride with a carload of other students going back to school; I vaguely remember that some of them may have been going to Washington State University which is just across the border from Moscow. I didn’t know the students, but a kind of camaraderie had probably developed during our long bus ride, so I must have thought it was okay to trust them to get me to Moscow safely.

The winter of 1968-69 still holds the record for the snowiest in Moscow, with almost 110 inches of snow, more than 55 inches coming in January. (Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I was able to confirm what I had long suspected, in this handy chart of snowfall in Moscow, Idaho since 1892-93!) In my memory it snowed every single day in January – sometimes just a little, other times a lot. My apartment was a 20-30 minute walk from my office and classrooms on campus, and I had no car, so I trudged back and forth to school every day in the cold and snow. I don’t think classes were ever cancelled due to snow that winter, unlike these days (at least here in central Pennsylvania) when even the threat of bad weather prompts numerous cancellations.

I had been attending the Church of the Nazarene ever since I arrived in Moscow in September, but had not really connected with anyone during the first semester and before I went home for Christmas. That January, however, after I returned, one of the church families began inviting university students who attended the church to their farm home on weekends for sledding parties. There was no shortage of snow for sure! I joined the group and at those sledding parties finally began making friends. In fact, the daughter of the family hosting the parties who was also a student at the University of Idaho became one of my best friends in Moscow; we still exchange Christmas cards 45 years later even though I have never made it back to Moscow to visit. Whether it was because I made it home for Christmas and felt fortified by renewed connections with family and old friends, or because I began making new friends during those sledding parties, or some combination of the two, I was never homesick again, thoroughly enjoyed my final year and a half in Moscow, made more friends, and was sad to leave after I graduated in June 1970.

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3 thoughts on “Home for Christmas

  1. Harriet–yet another thing in common: home for the holidays from boarding school. As I recall, then in Rhodesia, the school year ran from January to December, so the break was in effect the summer vacation. About 6 weeks long, I think. I recently found a photo of me at one of those missionary gatherings, sitting demurely (can you believe it?) on the floor with my arms outstretched to receive a small gift from someone who must have been playing Father Christmas. I have many many memories of Christmas in Africa…hmm, maybe a blog.
    As for graduate school, I stayed far closer to home, going to Lehigh in Bethlehem. So Christmas there took on a special magical quality what with all the wonderful Moravian traditions. Plus Bethlehem was within driving distance for both me and my boyfriend (now husband). So I felt none of the isolation you experienced.
    Christmas blessings on you and your family–thanks for the memories.

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