When I came to Madison in 1979 to go to college, I made it a point not to go back home until Thanksgiving.
Home was in West Allis, only an hour and twenty minutes away, but I was living in the exotic city of Madison now, and I believed that I could only learn the local folkways by immersing myself in the culture, learning to speak the language ("Willy Street," "East Wash," "social justice," "imperialism") and develop a taste for the local cuisine (quiche, croissants, sprouts, unprocessed sugar).
Then, with almost three months in the field behind me, I climbed aboard a Badger Bus and headed home. Somebody wrote that "home is the place where, when you show up there, they have to take you in."
They did take me in, though under close observation. There were vague concerns at the other end of I-94 that Madison would turn your sons and daughters into drug-loving atheistic communists. So, I scrupulously avoided all invitations to talk about politics or religion. I wasn't there to demonstrate what Madison had made of me, but to remember what it was like to be home.
I remember how odd it felt to suddenly be a semi-adult, quasi-guest in my parents' home. My mom even put chocolate mints on my pillow.
But, as it had for twenty years for me, the house filled up with the familiar sacramental smells of the holiday. I woke up on Thanksgiving morning to turkey in the oven and pumpkin pie on the way. My siblings would show up later, a couple with spouses now. We crammed into the little kitchen to eat our dinner, an early sign that one day the clan would outgrow the little Cape Cod during the holidays.
I spent the weekend seeing high school friends and relaxing. In fact, I don't remember a time before or since in which I felt so relaxed. There was strain I hadn't noticed in learning during those first few months at school how to make my own way in the world -- to pay my own bills, do my own laundry, clean my own apartment, get myself up to get to class, and figure out how to juggle my studies with a part-time job.
But for those four days, the pressure was off. I was being taken care of again.
On Sunday night, I caught a bus back to Madison to carry on the work of becoming an adult in the world. I returned to my parents' home many times, but it was never quite the same as that first trip back. I was getting more used to managing my own life and, ever so slowly and without planning it, I was creating my own sense of home.
As thousands of UW-Madison freshmen head home this weekend, many for their first trip back, I hope they enjoy the comforting strangeness of sleeping in their old beds and feel the new relationships, still close but with a growing sense of necessary distance, just emerging with their parents and siblings and old friends. They've taken the first steps toward independence and toward creating their own place in the world.
But they're not there yet. For now they've returned to all the comforts of the mother ship. My advice is to steer clear of politics and religion. Just appreciate what it is that you left and what it is (maybe the gravy recipe) that you'll take with you into your future.
Have a happy Thanksgiving!