By Hannah Voss
Last December, the week before Christmas, I bundled myself into the car with my mom and we drove south to the coast of Texas to train our binoculars on the elusive Whooping Crane. The Whooping Crane, which winters in Texas thanks to our mild weather, is the tallest North American bird, at around a meter and a half tall. In 1941, there were only 21 cranes in the wild; thanks to conservation efforts in the interim, there are now over 800. My mom and I were lucky enough to see four.
My feet at this point were so itchy. The trip was a consolation prize, as I’d had to defer my PhD from October to January – consigning yet more months of my fleeting twenties to a purposeless Covid-19 wasteland of pottering around my hometown. I’d never felt like I belonged in San Antonio, but the pandemic had sent me back there from my hiding place in London. On my return, the American border agent had checked my passport and said, “Welcome home, ma’am.” I choked back tears and walked on through the endless grey hallways of the airport: was this home?
I spent the nine months in Texas walking my dogs and helping my parents with projects around the house. I sat six feet away from my grandparents on their back porch until I wore down my grandmother’s traditionally stoic façade. As I packed my bags to come to Durham, she protested, “You’re leaving too soon!” and I finally realised she’d liked having me around.
Two days before New Year’s Eve, I threw myself onto the airplane with promises to come back in May, to see my brother graduate from university and a close friend get married. As soon as I arrived in the UK, the entire country went into its third lockdown, and I weathered the next four months alone in a flat in Durham, doubting my ability to research, to write, to be. Is everyone feeling this way? I wondered. I took a lot of walks. I felt so homesick I thought I would puke.
Travel restrictions meant I couldn’t go home in May, like I’d planned. My parents FaceTimed me so I could see my brother awarded his degree. My friend had an uneven number of bridesmaids, and I still owe her maid of honour money for the gifts we bought her as a group. My mom had to mail me my summer clothes – a swimsuit, one pair of shorts, a sundress I wore every day in July. My childhood dog died a few weeks ago, and I saw him for the last time through my laptop screen.
While I was doing my masters at Durham and then working in London, I spent two Christmases in a row at my boyfriend’s parents’ in Oxford. His family is so welcoming, but I felt like an alien. They didn’t have Christmas films playing perpetually on the TV (it isn’t the holidays without a terrifying 1950s Claymation Rudolph teaming up with broken toys and an elf who wants to be a dentist to save Christmas). My boyfriend and his brothers opened their presents randomly throughout the day, instead of all in one go, first thing Christmas morning. They didn’t have tamales on Christmas Eve. They didn’t have any dogs to sneak under the tree and chew away corners of wrapping paper. I never thought my family even had Christmas traditions until I wasn’t doing them. I vowed to never spend another Christmas away from home – hell or high water.
This year I’m flying home for Christmas, amidst both hell and high water, going back to America for the first time since I left for my PhD. I’m trading the Edinburgh Christmas markets and cosy British winter evenings for brown grass, poinsettias, and our redneck Christmas light display. When the border agent takes my passport and tells me in a thick Southern accent, “welcome home, ma’am”, I know I’ll burst into tears. Not because San Antonio isn’t home, but because I learned last year, whiling away my twenties doing ‘nothing’ (I thought, anyway), that it is. I have something in common with the Whooping Crane: I too am a migratory bird who winters in Texas.