Home for the holidays
Island teenagers often feel confined on Martha's Vineyard, wanting space and wanting to move past high school into the liberating realm of college. Free at last. But is being off-Island and relatively on one's own so much better?
"It used to be that Christmas was the only holiday that you really got excited for," said Cooper Johnson, a freshman at Wake Forest University. "Thanksgiving is more of a holiday now. You realize a lot more as you get older what you have to be thankful for. Honestly, getting to see my friends and family is like waking up on Christmas morning when you were a kid."
For most college freshman there is an excitement about coming home for the holidays. Statements decorated with exclamation points appear all over Facebook, as friends share giddy anticipation, and count down the days until they're home again.
Linda Fischer, whose daughter Lydia is a freshman at Berklee College of Music, anticipated the nostalgia involved in the reunion. "Her coming home makes me feel like she's a little kid again. I want to decorate her room and make her favorite foods. She'll only be on Martha's Vineyard for four days, but it's some time together for rekindling. We want to make sure she has a healthy dose of the Vineyard to take back to Boston."
The three months between the start of college and the Thanksgiving holiday is often the longest time that parents have ever been separated from their children. The distance adds a somewhat unpredictable twist to the family dynamic.
"It is going to be weird coming home from college," said Cooper. "I still don't really see myself as a college student. It's odd to think that that's where I'm at right now. I think this is going to be the first time where it really sets in. I doubt my family's rules are out the window, but I think I'll be viewed differently than I was before."
His interpretation of the change was fairly close to that of his mother, Laurie Halt. "He has a different status in our family," said Ms. Halt. "He's got two younger siblings, and because he's a college student he's not necessarily lumped with them. He's a young adult. He makes a lot of decisions for himself and we have to understand that."
Others express a certainty in the changes, optimistic that the transition home will have positive affects on the home. "When you're a teenager and you're in high school you're always trying to get out of the house, said Lydia Fischer. "Now I'm really excited to go home and see my parents. I respect my parent's rules, and I think if anything the things I've learned will make for a smoother relationship."
That relationship is one that Lydia's parents are just as keen on exploring. "It will be a learning experience for me," said her mother. "She's been living independently now for quite some time. I'm hoping there will be a renewed respect for both of us. I'm anxious to see how much she's grown, and to have maybe a different level of a relationship with her that might be new and could go past just parent- daughter."
These new relationships will play out over a small handful of days, and the crux of the break remains on giving thanks. "I'm very curious to see how she's changed," said Albert Fischer, Lydia's father. "There's no pressure. Most of all we really look forward to seeing her. That Lydia has been away doesn't change Thanksgiving as much as it makes it that much more special and meaningful."
For others, their freshman year of college is not the first time they have been away. For example, Jonah Lipsky of West Tisbury took a year off before he went to college. Last Thanksgiving he was abroad in France.
"Thanksgiving touches on the idea of what home is," said Jonah. "A lot has been changing and I've been apart from my family for the last few months. Every time I come home I kind of think about how I relate to it. It's a good chance to reassess what's good about home and what doesn't work so well. Discovering if it's a rejuvenating place, or, at this point at least, if it makes you fall back into old patterns."
An often-mentioned drawback of being away from home is the quality of food. College students talk about eating the same menu over and over, about eating in a big dining hall where most of the people are strangers. One student admitted, "Every day I find myself thinking about my mom's and my dad's cooking."
Parents have their own laments. "We haven't seen Lydia since she went off to college in August," said Ms. Fischer. "For her to be gone for that period of time has been a big void. The thing that has filled the void the most as a parent is knowing that she's happy. It makes the moments that you're sad not last too long. If your kid is happy, what more could you, as a parent, really want."
Jonah Lipsky said, "It takes a certain amount of presence to see your situation as unique and transitory. I think giving thanks is about appreciating what life has brought, but also realizing that it won't always be there. It's hard to give thanks honestly without thinking about what's changed and knowing that things can and do change."
With each Thanksgiving another year passes, and the children grow older and more aware of the subtle values of the holidays.
"You can trace your growth and how your family views you through Thanksgivings," said Cooper. "You start at the kid's table, and then as the years go by, you join in on the adult conversation. I don't feel like I've significantly changed since I've gone to college, but my appreciation for my family and friends has grown a lot stronger."
Ben Williams, a 2008 graduate of Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, is a regular contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.