THE AIRPLANE ROARING in the early winter darkness, our youngest complaining of pressure in her ears -- these were the expected accompaniment to going home for Christmas. But I found last year's ride a curious prelude to a plunge back into the past, and my mind kept dipping and bobbing. A man across the aisle looked bemused by the chatter of our children and I looked around the plane and wondered which others were in search of moorings, and what they'd find.

At the airport, Louisville socked me in the eye. It was growing and bustling. Soldiers swarmed, leaving Fort Knox. A minister-disc jockey looked comfortable in his new wealth. A feeling of nostalgia swept over me, leaving a lingering, peculiar melancholy.

I saw my mother. Her face looked expectant. When she saw us, she smiled and waved.

"Come here, Baby," she said, grabbing the towering girls, then my husband Sam.She turned to me last, and I felt her frailness as we hugged. My sister stayed a step or two behind my mother, seeming to feel that age and birthing deserved that consideration.

We rode past streets I know as well as I now know 15th and L streets in Washington. Centennial Baptist Church sat squat and square on Oak Street. The aroma from Johnson's Pit Barbecue floated enticingly over St. Catherine Street. There wasn't a bump on Garland Street that I hadn't avoided lest I crash in my skates, nor an alley in which I had failed to dart to avoid Loisey, the neighborhood bully.

When I was a girl, these streets symbolized life and action, the houses that now look weatherworn were then vivid, details in a backdrop that dared me to wander, to match my wits against a larger world.

"Take your bags upstairs," my mother said. "Can I get you something to eat?" She had fried chicken and baked jam cakes and given us her own bedroom where my late father's picture rested alongside one of the Nazarene. The chicken thigh was succulent. I realized with a start how much I loved my mother.

"Here's an article on you that was in the paper," she tells Sam. It is her way of expressing her gratitude for his leaving his own home in Washington to come to hers. They look at each other and smile. The children spread-eagle around the tube like spokes in a wheel, at ease in vacation vagueness and her tenderness.

The symbolism of everything I saw was stepped up the next day because it was Sunday. God cut a great swath through Louisville's West End. In contrast to the great brick edifices of 16th Street in Washington, Youngs Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church has the fireplace-warmth of a living room, and its interior took me back, back, like a camera in fast rerun, to a recitation of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," when I was 10, and the congregation's unstinting flood of praise.

Brother Ransaw prayed with drama, and Reverend Jackson, his arms cascading in his black robes, talked about the events of 2,000 years ago as if they happened this morning. The choir sang: poor little Jesus Boy they Ma -- ade You Lie Down in a Sta-Ble!!!

I looked at my mother, who was watching my daughter Melissa, and wondered what she really saw that made her smile. Going home to the beginnings has, over the years changed from chore to joy. My mother once approached her girlhood home in Tennessee with spring in her step; would Melissa one day yearn to go home again to touch and taste her roots?

After the service, the church members embraced us like returning prodigals, kissing our cheeks, smacking us with cherry reds and plums. My children squirmed, but I regressed in time. I knew this was their blessing, their urgings to keep on the path, to keep on keeping on in a world whose questions they could not answer. So instead they chattered like bright birds.

"You doing all right in Washington?" "What's Carter up to?"

My brothers and sisters and their families join us as my mother brings in the turkey and carves it. She heaps on collards like they were spoons of good fortune, and tut-tuts when I pass up the yams. "You eat like a bird!" she says. There is no wine with dinner.

As we eat, we return to the beginning and she is satisfied as she comes face to face with the present "Joe got into trouble," she reports. "Poor Bill had to go to the hospital." The chasm of the present has spared her brood; she gives praise without saying this.

She has weathered well the onslaught of contemporary life and remembered the lessons life had taught her. She did not wrestle with the reality of ours, no doubt feeling she'd done her part and the rest was up to us.

"Mrs. Patton wants to see you," she'd say, and it was off to taste yeasty buns and recall days long past when this "godmother" unfailing slipped dollar bills into the letters she sent me at Lincoln University.

Hometown friends suggest we lunch amid fake palms and stuffed fish at a shiny place that once forbade our parents enter, but they humor my insistence that we settle upon a wooden booth at Johnson's and barbecue that stings our tongues.

When it is finally time to leave, I look back at our house. It seems, somehow, important to see it just as it is. "What's the matter?" my mother asks, wondering why I had stopped before stepping into the car.

"I was just thinking what a nice Christmas this was." She rides with us to the airport. She begins to walk to the gate.

"That's a long walk for you; your legs might ache tonight." I squeezed her arm.

"That's perfectly okay," she said. "I want to do it." We link arms.

We get on the airplane, and she walks slowly back on the arm of my sister. It is her last Christmas.