I have been having a case of the blues lately. I love my new apartment and am still enamored with all that Mexico City has to offer. That said, it’s been hard finding work and making friends here. I miss those two-hour telephone gab-a-thons with friends living in the States. I only recently discovered Facebook video calling (very similar to Skype). It helps, but it is also dependent on friends being home in front of their webcams. My parents, who don’t have (and probably don’t need) internet access, are still over 2,000 miles away, and I haven’t spoken with them since the morning before my move from the U.S. to Mexico. My girlfriend and I love each other and see each other often, but she has her own life and I must remember to give her some space.
As someone who’s always marched to the beat of his own drummer, I must confess: for perhaps the first time in my life, I’m lonely.
Fortunately, the holidays are here and I’m leaving Sunday to visit family in both sides of Tennessee. Wee doggies! (Or however you spell that.) American Airlines offered me an Executive Platinum frequent flyer status match, and has upgraded me to First Class for my first flight. (My second, connecting flight is on one of those dreaded, single-class, 40-seater regional jets that, of late, have seemingly overtaken the fleets of both United and American. It seems that these boxy-ass, corrugated metal lightning rods are everywhere.)
My sister lives in Memphis, just a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River. My parents, on the other hand, live east of Knoxville, in the northern foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. I am flying into Memphis just two days before Christmas for some much-needed catch-up time with my sister, her daughter, and the family dog, Dot. I haven’t seen any of them in two years, but is it wrong of me to say that I’m most looking forward to seeing young Dottie the dachshund? That flatulent wiener dog is more fun than a barrel of monkeys! The ‘rents are driving down the following morning, and we’ll presumably all enjoy Christmas Eve dinner as a family, for the first time in far too long. On December 25th we’ll likely laugh, bicker, and watch too much TV, which is to say, whatever my dad feels like watching. I am sure he’s already called dibs on the most comfortable chair. (Dad, I tease you with love.) The next morning, my parents and I will make the long drive back to Eastern Tennessee.
Although I’ve traveled all over the globe for the holidays, I have always managed to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my parents. They are older now, and so am I, and it is now more than ever – perhaps because I’m lonely or perhaps because some of my closest friends have lost their own parents in recent years – that I appreciate having both parents in my life. I hope to continue this tradition, and it may surprise some of you that some of my very best holiday memories aren’t just of Thanksgivings in Southeast Asia or of New Year’s Eves in Western Europe, but of Christmases with family.
A Smoky Mountain Christmas (December 2011)
Without divulging too much GringoPotpourri family drama, let me begin by saying that my sister and her daughter were unable to spend Christmas 2011 with their parents/grandparents. My mom was devastated; her first Christmas away from the kid was heart-breaking, as it would be for any grandparent. My dad hinted that I’d better haul my butt to Eastern Tennessee (or else!) to at least somewhat salvage the holiday. I had already flown 110,000 miles that year (really!); what was another 3,900 round-trip at that point?!
Earlier that year, my mom had retired from her job of 15 years. About the same time, she and my dad decided that they wanted a quieter place with a lower cost of living to spend their remaining years. Relatives in the area helped them get into a wonderful half-brick, half-wood house in a small Tennessee Civil War town just an hour’s drive from Virginia and North Carolina. The house, a raised ranch built into a hill, was and is everything they need. It has two guest bedrooms, a large country kitchen, a man cave for dad (he spends most of his time in there), and a large yard should they decide to get another dog. By plane it’s midway from TYS (Knoxville McGhee Tyson Airport) and TRI (Tri-Cities Regional Airport). In other words, a long way from anywhere.
I can honestly say that last Christmas was one of the fondest in memory. Mom rewarded my loyal travel with a large platter of deviled eggs and several favorites from her rotation of classic GringoPotpourri family meals. Baked chicken. Beef stew. German goulash. Meatloaf. Pork chops. Sweet Jesus, I hadn’t eaten so well in…years? Mom apparently agreed with my assessment, as she heaped seconds and thirds onto my plate. Far be it for me to complain. There was one awkward moment Christmas morning when my mom had a good cry over not seeing her granddaughter, but for the most part she was calm and composed. I am proud of you, mom. Nights were spent watching movies; I recommended “Love Actually” one particular evening, which they enjoyed and which I had recommended for them the previous Christmas as well, though they had little recollection of having seen it just one year prior. One evening we took a drive through various neighborhoods in search of holiday lights. There weren’t many to be found. Although it can get quite cold in the winter, snow is a rarity in this part of the country, and as such, holiday decorations are a bit underwhelming.
My parents are Civil War buffs, and part of what attracted them to this part of the state is the relative frequency at which various historic sites are spotted. Less than one hour north is Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, home of several earthworks forts that intersect three U.S. states. One hour south is Greenville, TN, birthplace and burial town of President Andrew Johnson and the site of heavy Civil War fighting. Their own town is home to the still-operating Crockett Tavern, boyhood home of the famous pioneer and Alamo martyr. I didn’t get to see all these places on a one-week holiday visit, but my parents rattled off their checklist of places to seek out in the future, which included these aforementioned places and many others. We did happen to pass a cemetery where soldiers from the Civil War to the Iraq War are forever interred; this country road – a bypass of Interstate Highway 81 – was marked “Tennessee Civil War Trails” at frequent intervals. This was a happy accident for all three of us, as my parents traced the names of those entombed here (a “Crockett” tombstone being one of the more prominent markers) while I photographed the fallen leaves and Presbyterian church on the premises.
I hope, Loyal Reader, that this blog entry doesn’t bore you, and I likewise recognize that my fond memories of a more simple trip than usual may not sound as exciting as, say, Thanksgiving in Stockholm or New Year’s Eve in Rome. That said, this old gringo is approaching middle age, and is appreciating the importance of family more and more. I have no plans to stop traveling the world (2013 travel plans include Moorea and Bora Bora in French Polynesia, not to mention a whole lot more of Mexico), but I hope to stop off and visit family – not just my parents and my sister but more distant cousins as well – somewhere along the way. And with apologies to Perry Como (and to Dollywood for borrowing their “A Smoky Mountain Christmas” trademark), there’s no place like home for the holidays.
The ‘rents, Christmas 2011 – in their upper 60’s but doing well.
Historic Crockett Tavern, once run by Davey Crockett’s parents and now open during the summer months.
Civil War Trail marker, middle of nowhere.