Sunset from my house in Los Angeles.

Family Is Where You Find It

I’m an accidental transplant.

I didn’t come to Los Angeles to reinvent myself. I wasn’t one of those girls (in body or spirit) who steps off a bus into the gleaming sunlight determined to show the world just what she’s worth.

When my husband and I moved here from Boston in 1999, it wasn’t meant to be permanent. He needed to be here for work and it seemed like a fun adventure — a lark. We’d be gone for only one year we told ourselves. We would see how silly and shallow Los Angeles was and the return to the more sensible East Coast.

Before we left, my mother looked at me knowingly and said I would never come back. I assured her I would. But 16 years later, here I am, starting off Thanksgiving Day with a long hike through the hills near my house because it’s warm and beautiful out and I can. My mother was right. I never went back.

Last week I saw the movie Brooklyn, about a young Irish girl in the ‘60s who leave her home to make a new life for herself in New York. Ellis (played beautifully by Saoirse Ronan) isn’t a refugee fleeing war, neither is she a rebel longing to escape her stifling family life. Her older sister knows there will be more opportunity for Ellis in Brooklyn and with the help of friendly priest, she arranges for a new life for her beloved sister.

At first, Ellis is desperately homesick. But as the movie progresses, she builds a life for herself in New York until a death in the family pulls her back to Ireland. Ellis then must decide where her home is — with her mother in Ireland or back in Brooklyn.

When the house lights came up, I did my best to cover up the fact that I had been openly sobbing. Ellis’ story touched me deeply. It was my story. It was my husband’s story. It was the story so many of my L.A. friends are living right now.

There was a time (pre children) when I jetted back and forth to my family home in Philadelphia every few months. I was there for holidays and long weekends and always Thanksgiving. I missed my family but I still felt connect to my life in Philadelphia.

But as airfare prices have climbed and children have turned 1 or 2 round-trip tickets into 4, our trips to Philly have narrowed down to once a year. Thanksgiving is now completely off the table. It’s just too expensive that week. For a while I faked it by taking the children out of school the week before Thanksgiving and having Faux-giving but they’re now too old to miss that much school.

Watching Ellis say (spoiler alert) goodbye to her mother near the end of the film reminded me of every time I say goodbye to my mother. My mom lives with MS which makes her life very hard. She never makes me feel guilty or begs me to come back, but I feel so sad whenever I leave her.

Part of me wants to be back there. I want to be able to just go for Thanksgiving dinner with my family and not have it mean a major investment and the hassle of traveling. I want it to be really chilly so the house feels nice and warm when I come inside. I want to be a child again.

But of course I am spending Thanksgiving with my family. My husband is downstairs cooking the turkey. My children are playing happily. Later this afternoon friends will come by and we will eat ourselves sick and laugh and drink and play games and clean up our mess because if we don’t, no one else will.

I’m so lucky that I’ve found people in Los Angeles (transplants mostly, intentional and accidental) who I now consider family. They help us mark important occasions. They’ve seen my children grow from babies into preteens. They understand the ins and outs of my life and they’re right there if I need a drink, a hug or a hike.

This is the family my children will know best. Writing that makes me a little sad. I sometimes wish the family that surrounded them was the same one I grew up with: my brother, my mother, my father.

The thing I liked best about Brooklyn was that even though Ellis chose her new life in the end (as most of us our here have), it showed that it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t black and white. I love my home and I love my life but a small part of me will always be in Philadelphia and a small part of me will always feel bad about not building a life close to my childhood home.

But melancholy and sadness are a part of life. Ellis says to a new transplant that she will be so homesick she will feel like she’s going to die but that it will pass. Living with the sadness and knowing it will pass is a good way to live. I can support that.

When the sadness passes, I’ll marvel at the fact that my children are growing up Angelinos; that they’ll always consider 45 degrees cold; that eating lunch outside at school is the norm; that they don’t know a life where movies aren’t sometimes being filmed down the street. I so hope they don’t leave California but I know one day they might. Then I’ll have to be the one who finds the strength to be OK with it, even though I know they’ll never come back. Learning to live with some sadness now, knowing it will pass, will hopefully help make me stronger when I need to let them go.

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