Our theme for the month of November is “firsts.”

Thanksgiving, unlike most holidays, doesn’t mark a discrete event, memorial, or cause. Rather, it represents a poignant mixture of action, virtue, and a state of mind. As a holiday, the only common traditions seem to be eating a lot and going home. Families devise their own personal traditions and live into them again and again. At Thanksgiving, I tend to think less about “firsts” and more about these “agains.” I look forward to eating the same meal—which never disappoints, or making candy turkeys (a LaPlaca tradition that we still observe, even though we are all older and busier and the turkeys look as if they are meant for four-year-olds, which of course they once were).

But the very consistency of holidays can bring life “firsts” and changes into sharp relief.

Freshman year of college, Thanksgiving break was the first time I came home after a long time of being elsewhere. I remember driving back through my neighborhood and feeling surprised that I actually recognized where I was. I immediately noticed the minute changes—the local high school had installed a new sign, a neighbor had repainted his house.

I hefted my backpack up the familiar paint-chipped steps of the back deck. I heard the old tune of the screen door screeching open. Then I was in the tiny kitchen, bursting beyond its capacity with food and smells, and baking contraptions hanging on every inch of wall space.  The strange, primal comfort of home confronted all my senses. I was happy and, another surprise, the tiniest bit emotional.

This aching appreciation for the familiarity of home is captured eloquently in the classic children’s book Wind in the Willows. (I know—talking animals may not be the most sophisticated analogy, but bear with me.)

Mole has been adventuring far afield from his natural habitat with Ratty on the river for the previous chapters of the book. It is only when the two friends are tramping through the forest in Chapter V, entitled “Dolce Domum,” that Mole suddenly feels the summons to his past life.

It was one of these mysterious fairy calls from out the void that suddenly reached Mole in the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal, even while yet he could not clearly remember what it was. He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him. A moment, and he had caught it again; and with it this time came recollection in fullest flood.

Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way!

Poor Mole is overcome by emotion, and Rat, though he longs to go to his beloved river, helps Mole sniff out the door to his little home in the dirt (these are rodents, after all).

But to return to reality, the sweet normality of home becomes sweetest after absence. The familiar is defined by exposure to the foreign and new. I also found that the familiarity highlighted the newness in my own character. I was back in my natural habitat, but that thanksgiving, I saw my home for the first time as someone who didn’t really live there anymore. Going home for the first time meant I had to squeeze the college me and recollections of the old me into the same space and time, and hope the new and old could get along.

Later during that Thanksgiving break, an older member of my church asked about how college was going. But he followed it up with a question I was not expecting: “How was coming home? I remember when I came from the college the first time, there was something very special about it.”

There is also something very special about people who ask such perceptive questions to emotional college students. That wasn’t the first, or the last, Thanksgiving I’ve been grateful for my church family and for my home, but that year marked the beginning of a new gratitude that has sharpened and strengthened each time I leave and each time I take joy in returning.

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