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Brianna Parkins: Away from family this Christmas? You're not alone in thinking about home

Virgin Media reporter Brianna Parkins can’t travel home to Australia this year – here, she writes about the many feelings this brings up in her. And the many funny memories…

Image: Shutterstock/AdriaVidal

I HAVE NOT seen my family for over a year now. I haven’t been in the same room as anyone related to me in 12 months.

This means it’s been ages if I’ve been asked “does the 15-year-old boy you stole your jeans off know you have them?”, or been reminded about some mortifying incident that happened when I was eight, brought up in conversation with no context.

Yes – I remember crashing a motorbike into a creek, Auntie. I also remember doing it under the ropey supervision of grown-ups drinking West Coast Coolers – so who should be more embarrassed about this, me or you?

For those of you with civilised families, not being able to see your loved ones is a cruel garnish on the shite sandwich 2020 has been. Even if you’re like me and have absolute mad dogs on both sides of the family tree, the quiet sadness is still there. It’s lonely to know I’ll be away from the wrapping paper chaos and arguments about who tricked Gran into growing ‘tomato’ plants, which grew lots of leaves you could smoke but never any fruit…

In 2020, we were all children to an extent, hoping that by behaving and washing our hands, wearing masks and staying inside Santa would bring us what we wanted: a rake of pints in our local pub. Going home to our childhood bed that our Mams\Mums\Moms\Mamas have slipped a hot water bottle into. Cousins who understand us better than our friends because of our shared mild childhood trauma. The ability to be at home.

Uneasy peace

I didn’t make the last repatriation flight to Australia. I have made an uneasy peace with not being home in Sydney this Christmas, as all immigrants have to at some point in their lives.

I feel particularly for those in Ireland and the UK who had tickets booked and bags packed but have had their homecomings cancelled by rising case numbers. Whether they have to isolate, couldn’t get a plane or simply have decided to stay away for safety, even if they’re only an hour down the road.

The Irish have a word for the house they grew up in. They call it their home-house. Even if they haven’t lived there for twenty years, that house is still called their home-house.

The house they live in now, with their spouses, the ones with their photos on the walls and their hair strands hanging on the shower tiles – that’s merely their house. Even if it’s the place they spend the most time in and the place they feel most safe letting off unapologetically loud farts.

Their ‘home-house’ is still always the dwelling where they were born and lived in a tangle of chaotic family up and downs. Where they snuck out from to get their first shift. Where childhood arguments started and family hatchets are buried. Where the photos on the mantelpiece hint at who the favourite child is – which is usually any family’s worst kept secret.

They will tell you that there’s no better place in the world, even if they’ve just spent the last 10 minutes talking about how the small town they grew up is ‘a hole’. Irish people love to compete with each other over whose hometown is the biggest hole, as if the country is actually just a load of quarries connected by Bus Eireann.

But I’ve followed friends and family back to their home-houses like the stray dog I’ve become and I’ve noticed one thing.

They seem to walk taller there. They worry less. The need to care about booking in for gym classes and KPIs and overtime shifts is useless when you’re surrounded by your own people. They only care if you’ve eaten, if you’re around for pints later and if you’ve any news about so and so’s son, you know the one, you do!

I watch my loved ones relax into themselves. I get tours of places that made them, goals scored on GAA pitches, hearts broken in regional nightclubs. I watch gaits become almost swaggers in wellies as they show you around farms. I have learned that if you are going out with a culchie you spend a lot of time looking at patches of grass or Google maps agreeing that yes, “that is a lovely/grand/big field”.

Accents get stronger. The letter H suddenly invades words where it didn’t live before. ‘Stop’ becomes ‘shtop.’

Returning to country

Indigenous Australians talk about ‘returning to country’. The need to go back to the land that is inextricably linked to your family, your culture and your nation. To maintain that tie and to remind yourself who you are on traditional lands (some that have been hard fought for under Native Title). A refresher to keep you grounded and strong.

My first boss, a proud Nunga woman, once granted me leave at very short notice to come home for a while when she could have said no. She said I would be a better use to her after I came back. And I was.

She taught me about return to country, and I wonder if it has a relative in Ireland, a way for me to explain what I’ve seen here. The tie to where you are from and the drive to get back to it even just for a visit. A booster shot vaccine against forgetting who we are.

I’ve seen the vitriol online. About Christmas being just one day and how people should stop complaining. They are right. Christmas the day is just 24 hours long, but it is the only time everyone has off all together, to return all together.

Home is not just the house but the weird constellations of people we share our lives with all coming together. Our orbits align once a year and we are able to go back in time and recreate when we all lived there.

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We lie in our single beds. We wear pajamas. We have to sneak cigarettes behind the garage. Your partners are sometimes banished to separate beds (yes, even if you live together, even if you have a child together). It doesn’t matter if you have a successful career in journalism in a foreign country BECAUSE REMEMBER THE TIME YOU CRASHED A MOTORBIKE INTO THE CREEK!!

Once you lose these constellations of people and places it’s harder to hold onto home. My favourite memories of Christmas are of it being 40 degrees and my Mum threatening ineffectually that next Christmas she was going on strike because IT’S TOO BLOODY HOT TO COOK AND WOULD YOU GET OUT OF THE KITCHEN.

She would somehow feed about 35 of us, plus an annual rotating cast of boyfriends and girlfriends. We would scoff it all down wearing paper crowns found in Christmas crackers, the sweat on our heads causing them to melt and red or green rivulets run down our faces.

Long scores would be settled over monopoly games – until we banned it for a while after the butter knife hostage incident. I laugh thinking about everything that happened, and I wish I called my family as much as I thought about them.

My grandmother’s house has been sold. We have lost my grandfather, my cousin and now this year my uncle. We will never have these exact Christmasses again so I treasure those memories now.

One of the greatest fears immigrants have (spoiled ones like me from first world countries) is that home will not be there when we come back. That we will not be able to stroll back in and pick up where we left off.

When I Skype home, it will be morning here and night there on Christmas Day. There will be an empty space on the lounge next to my mum and dad (who is probably still wearing speedos and nothing else) for me.

I wish and hope it will be there for me next year, with the same faces asking if I can hear them and if I am OK.

Brianna Parkins is a reporter with Virgin Media. 

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