The car was packed to the roof with their luggage, their baby stroller, their diaper bag and all the other goodies sold as optional equipment with each new child. The husband had wrapped his son like a sausage into a swaddling of a snowsuit and put him, too, into the back seat.
The couple was headed home for the holidays. This time I was driving them to the airport, that first way-station on their annual migration. They carried with them the proof of belonging to the family on the other side of the air route: The husband bore his wedding band, the wife her freckles; the boy wore his red hair, which had been officially declared "exactly like" that of his grandfather.
Soon the wife's family would be together, all in the same area code. For once, no one would be directly dialed. For once they would be person to person . . . in person.
The roadway to the airport was already jammed. Day by day it was building to the peak load, the crescendo of traveling horrors. Thanksgiving eve. That night the most penny-pinching soul damned the torpedoes and full-fared ahead. Home for the holidays.
It was good to be going home, the wife said to her husband as he struggled with the small boy trying to liberate his baby feet from the snuggy. He agreed.
He remembered something from one of the obituaries written about Margaret Mead. Being a citizen of the world, she had said, meant being at home in many places. Holding his baby, he wondered about that. How many of us actually do feel at home in many places? How many more of us simply feel strange away from home?
The couple had spent their childhoods in other area codes - 503 and 312 - and in other environments. Each was a transplant, a cutting from a family tree, or at least a family plant. When they were young, everyone had simply expected that they would put down their roots wherever there was "the best opportunity."
Now, sometimes, the wife remarked that the most transportable plant - the wandering jew - wasn't named for a willing immigrant but for a historic exile.
It wasn't the first time I had driven friends to the planes or trains or buses that took them away to their families. Many of my friends need a holiday to go home; many accept the idea that long-distance is the next best things to being there. And don't think much about what's best.
My family, on the other hand, has always been there. Through luck and choice we share not only an area code but a zip code. Together we own eight bridge chairs, one 30-cup percolator and a single electric drill. We play musical children and cars. Like some collective, with more enthusiasm than skill, we trade: knitting lessons for disco lessons, nursing for gardening, carpentry or listening, day care for storytelling.
We complain to each other and about each other. We have helped each other sometimes and other times wrestled with our inability to help. We have been the keepers of our continuity, the people we can tell the truth about our children.
"Any marriage," W. H. Auden once wrote, "is infinitely more interesting and significant than any romance, however passionate." Well, I was never sure of that. But I have always thought that any family - with its history and its soap-opera intensity - was more interesting than any other collection of people.
So I suppose my own experience has made me question the notion that it is normal to leave home and vaguely suspect to stay. We are regarded as either "strong enough" to make it on our own or "not daring" enough to take the risk.
Our nation was founded by leavers, we are the grandchildren of leavers. We are a people who peculiarly regard self-fulfillment as an independent activity and who look upon our family lives as exercises in self-denial.
If we were playing a national game of word association, how many of us would identify the word "personal" with "growth," and "family" with "obligations." It seems that we continually jettison our support systems to avoid obligations and lose our context in the pursuit of a "better life."
"Each society," wrote Margaret Mead, "has taken a special emphasis and given it a full and integrated expression at the expense of other potentialities of the human race." We have taken the "I" over the "we"; potential over history.
My passengers were upwardly mobile, with emphasis on the mobile. They had left home for better schools at area code 415 and then for jobs at 202 and 212. Now they lived at 617 and had parents who touch-dialed their grandchildren. They were "at home" only on holidays. And wondered what they had gained and what they had lost.
But as the car finally pulled up to the entrance, the couple tumbled out grasping strollers and sausage, carrying with them an air of vacationers. They were people for whom family was not a routine but an occasional pleasure-seeking trip. So they went home excited. And I went home . . . thankful.