Christmas was almost suffocatingly -- home. Richard Lingeman, "Small Town America"

LAST DEC. 26 I was sitting on the washing machine in the basement of my parents' home having one of those infrequent talks with my father when he paused and looked at me. He said, matter-of-factly, "I don't think any man will ever want to marry you; you're so independent."

Certainly a few years earlier and that kind of remark would have cut me to the childhood quick. But having made a number of pilgrimages home, carrying financial and emotional packages of every proportion, I have learned to prepare myself for going home.

Sometime in late October, a homing instinct is stirred in me and, with that, a vague but persistent set of desires to be mothered, to be rooted and to be reacquainted with those who figured in my upbringing. At the same time, I would just as soon ignore it all. Thoughts of spending Christmas reading a good book and eating a grilled cheese sandwich by myself seem awesomely easier than going home.

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there," writes Robert Frost, "they have to take you in." Home is the place, where, when you only go there once a year, holiday expectations are born and killed. Murdered, really. Too much rides on four days or a week. We stake all our hopes for parental recognition, for reestablishing closeness, for wiping out the bad taste of teen year rebellion on one tiny week at the end of the year when we are too full of fruitcake and eggnog.

When I tabulate our discussions on my return trip they often consist of talks with my mother about the length of the tablecloth or how much sweetener to put in the carrot cake. Talks with Dad about which stocks to buy and what he's singing in the church choir. One thousand miles cross-country, a week off from work, and "these precious days I spend with you" come down to carrot cake and church choir?

And yet each year I make the trek, leaving a big piece of me here, and finding the rest of me there.

My mother contends that families keep one in line, even it it's only once a year that you see them. They have a gravitational pull that brings you back to center when you are too far out of orbit. I go to be realigned with that orbit.

For those who are married with children, my own skewed perspective tells me that this time is different -- if not easier. They have at least marked two rites of passage into adulthood -- two critical criteria for a small town -- and there is no question where they sit for Christmas dinner: at the big table with the adults. For those of us who haven't married, our alien status is confusing. The response to what others perceive as our "unfinished childhood," seems to, as Ellen Goodman notes, "keep them in a state of painfully incomplete parenting."

Coming home single, year after year, is, historically speaking, a new phenomenon, and, in my home town, we're all still trying to figure out how to categorize it. Last year during Christmas Eve dinner, my uncle stopped the conversation to reconfirm that I was near 30, and that even by the most liberal calculations, I must certainly be close to old maid statusship. My own recovery did not approach the drama of his statement, and a quick check of the female population around the table showed that all present had already had at least three children by my age.

I have come to realize that a certain preoperative preparation is necessary. I must anethesize my child core, and be prepared for psyche-threatening prodding and questioning. Though my face is familiar, my way of living is foreign and they attack what they cannot understand.

Going home means testing out how strongly rooted your new means and modes are. What you may hold firmly to in your present life takes a shaking when it's called to account at home.

Mother wants to know why my brother would want to go into a "risky, competitive, 'wild' " field like music when he already has a good job. "Lots of people wouldn't scorn having a job."

When my grandmother hears that my other brother is working for Mother Earth News, she calls him to task for being mixed up with a "religious cult."

There is a certain sadness in our attempts at conversation. We have almost equal years together as we do apart, but the past is fading more quickly and our present lives invade our prior togetherness like modern architecture amidst the stone columns of the old buildings.

My mother wants to know if John Lennon meant anything to my brother. Yes, he did, says my brother. Well, I guess I never heard any of his music, says mother.

The rules of what one can and cannot do on Christmas vacation become clearer with the passage of many vacations. And with certain maturity, you're allowed a few graces. I can, for example, now tell my father a dirty joke. But not while my mother is in the room.

But we have also learned what pressure points to avoid, what subjects, when no matter with what degree of finesse they're approached, jolt a family member into wide- eyed R & R (ranting and raving) and the only hope for peace is the unexpected visit of a holiday guest or, possibly, dinner. My father's "battle buttons" include the liberal media, welfare and government regulation of business.

Never is there more evidence of our genetic inclination toward hardheadedness, than Christmas vacation with all of us in one room. Scattered across the country we are sufficiently diluted, but put us in a room too close to kin and our voices rise to the level of the mating elephant.

It is Christmas Day and the world is hauntingly quiet. We gather in the kitchen, comfortable because of its activity. A strange uncertainty falls over us -- like seeking an old lover years later -- a slightly uncomfortable sense of d,ejMa vu.

Our green felt Christmas stockings are hung on the mantel; they haven't had any treasures for years. The house is still decorated with fresh holly and red candles and there are special chocolates and fruit cake in the glass jars. But Christmas now, without children, is pared down to a grown-up slimplicity.

Like the three wise men, each of us brings "a representative sample of our lifestyle": pita bread, alfalfa sprouts and vegetarian recipes, a new song played on the piano, a new fuel-saving idea. These are our offerings to the common good, the cement of a scattered family, that which attempts to bond our present to bits and pieces of the past.

Mother and I sit on the couch in the living room late at night, with the glow of the fire to soften our aging faces. We talk about marriage and men and families. There lingers a sort of melancholy desperation over us; when we talk we know we come from such different worlds -- almost as if we need an interpreter between us.

I had brought a man to meet them at Nags Head in the fall. By December, I was talking of splitting up. You get to a point in a relationship, I tell her, where you have to go one way or the other. Surely she knows this -- anyone does who's been through relationships and reads the Cathy comic strip.

But she's been married to the same man for 40 years.

"I never had so many choices," she says softly.

The day after Christmas, my brothers and I went out to see if the town where my parents live still deserves the nostalgic label, "My Hometown." Consciously or unconsciously, we expect -- we demand -- that My Hometown resist Change. We are like first- time visitors to Germany, living in the modern world but praying to the god of historic preservation that somewhere else on earth these remains an enclave of Bavarian thatched roof huts.

We expect a Mrs. Haversham wedding room without the cobwebs.

But My Hometown has closed up its riverfront downtown and now there's a mall with all the sameness of any suburban community. Gone are the stores where you could write a check and no one asked you for even ic>one i.d.

There is nothing quite so jarring to your present life -- nothing that so blatantly shocks you into the passage of time -- as returning to the place you grew up.

Going home means having to face the changes. Coming face to face with the fact that, even though the newspapers are full of articles on singles, "back there" it is still peculiar.

But still I return. Even though I am semi- comfortable in my modern celebration of Thanksgiving -- a turkey trot race in the a.m. -- Christmas needs a family's tradition thw way a tree requires its ornaments.

When we have a home to return to, the bittersweet warmth surrounds us. Despite the strain of the new against the old, we go home to find, as the stage manager in "Our Town" says, "something way down deep that's eternal about every human being."

My 93-year-old grandmother's springerle cookies, exactly the way she's been baking them since I was born. My father's hearty love of Dixieland jazz. My mother's enthusiasm for life.

We go home to reconfirm what part of our family personality inheritance we have chosen to live with, and what will be passed on to the next.

The thread of continuity -- that is what brings me back -- to pierce it through me again, like a once-a-year allergy shot, to tack down my uncertain future.

I leave this city of transition to find what Christopher Lasch in "The Culture of Narcissism" calls a "sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future."