The last I wrote here, I said I was unsure about what I was doing for Christmas. That was, however, one of many ruses I placed in order to create a surprise for my family in California for the holidays. With three months of planning and hardly the gumption to muster the guile for that amount of time, Mom, Dad and I were able to pull off the greatest subterfuge in family history.
On the wings of some of Dad’s one billion frequent-flyer miles—and one last feint to Kristen to make her believe I was going to Japan again to wander for a few days—I arrived in the States undetected on December 23rd at 8 in the morning at SFO. After meeting Mom and Dad at the gate and giving the first of many embraces to try and make up for sixteen months away, we scooted down to San Jose to make final preparations for my popping out of the cake. While there wasn’t really a cake or sparklers or me in a bathing suit (to the dismay of most, I am sure), the surprise was easy to pull off with the two bedroom suite way up top the Fairmont in downtown that Mom and Dad said they had won in an auction. Why not get the kids together and go to the amusement park and Christmas in the Park? maneuvered Daddio a month ahead of time. And shortly after they had all gathered, I came around to the main door and rang. Everyone was sufficiently surprised but Kristen’s reaction was the best: she walked slowly toward me, gingerly carrying her jaw of disbelief along with her, as if she expected me to disappear as quickly as I had appeared. Finally I bear-hugged her into reality. And the party began.
Surrounded on all sides by the family I had been so long separated from, I acclimated myself quite easily to the abundant love and booze and food that was in that room. It was like I was never gone. Most importantly, I saw my little buddy Ian again, his sister Audrey—whom I held easily in one arm when last I saw her—and my niece, Lexi—whom I had only seen in pictures and video that Kristen had sent me over the past year. Ian is smarter than any whip I ever met—and just as rambunctious as could be expected from a four year old boy. Audrey slowly warmed to me; she was the one I was most worried about getting in good with since I knew her fairly well as a wee one but not since her more recent formative years. And Lexi, well, she was just as happy, friendly, and hilarious as I had been given the impression of by Mama Kristen. After dinner, I met up with Diron for a drink and, once again, it was as if I had never gone. We sat down and talked about the same old stuff—women, family, sports (not in that order)—and we planned my birthday party for a few days later.
The next day, Mom, Dad and I carted back to Modesto where I was finally able to see their pride and joy: the Great Room, a hot topic of conversation in the year past and a magnificence I had not been privy to. I was immediately taken in by the new amenities and, just as usual, made to feel completely at home. I was at home in a home that has changed so much over the last 30 years that it is hardly the same thing. I suppose that house is like any of its current and former inhabitants: it is bound to change over the long term. I am so glad that Ma finally relented on her position to keep that dividing wall. But I am much more glad that the former and still current inhabitants have adapted and changed and made their own lives and their own families all the better for it, better for having seen that not only does change happen; it also is made to happen. And that change often takes a little bit of demolition before the interior decorator’s vision can be fully realized.
After a couple days running around town for sundry items, eating some outstanding food—including the first two of about five pounds of cheese I consumed that week—we went off to Vallejo to see Mama Kristen and Papa J’s house for Christmas dinner. Kristen and J pulled off a few great spreads and accommodated every whim, all while maintaining grace.
The next day, Dave, Terry and Taylor came by on their way home from an out of state trip. I am grateful that they made the trip, as the energy of their family often sustains me. That evening, I sped off in a red rental Chevy Cobalt, listening on the radio to the Sharks finish off a victory. And down into the cold San Jose night to pick up my foreign visitor. Janine came in around 930 to SJC and damn near tackled me flat out in baggage claim. After five months of being apart—especially in the unique circumstances in which we met and became close—I was equally ecstatic to see her on my home soil. No sooner had we retrieved her bags than we were chatting about our usual things—family, each other, plans for the next couple days. The five months evaporated as if nothing had happened.
Over the following two days, I showed her some of my favorite spots along the coast between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. On my birthday, I got a speeding ticket that I must make a phone call on soon or I will have a warrant out for my arrest when I return. But I shook that off before we returned to San Jose for a luncheon with the entire family. To share with my family a part of my Korean experience that has been so important to me was as important as showing Janine the influential people in my life. And lunch was just the beginning.
That night, after Kristen went with her family to Tahoe and Lars went to a concert, Janine and I went to Diron’s house for BBQ pork (smoked for 12 hours to perfection) and a hockey game on the tube. Mom and Dad made it for dinner but soon left to prepare for their own party, the Family Holmberg Gathering which was happening the next day back in Modesto. But Janine got to meet The Fellas, the roving band of variously domesticated guys—and their dolls—that I call my extended family. The night was too short, but I started a common refrain as I said my goodbyes at the dingy bar we later found ourselves in: I’ll be back for an extended powwow before you can blink your eyes. As of this week, it is about thirteen weeks until my return for weddings and North America jaunts to connect with my people in BC, Ontario, LA, NYC.
The next day, at a not-so-break-neck-speed in that rascally red car, we went to Modesto for the annual Dad’s side family gala where I was run ragged by the aforementioned ankle-biters and their little cousins Abbey, Hanna and Joshua. Also, I was kept away from my beloved cheeseball by my own cousins. I think that day was so active that I was probably saved from gaining 3 kilos rather than the 2 extra kilos I carried home in my gut the following day.
Upon reading this over again, I realize the abundant praise I have showered on everyone. This sentimentalizing is easy to do when so far away from the day-to-day action and drama of family life. Out here, I have pursued my own ends and have only partially attained satisfaction in that regard. I don’t know how my brother and my sister and their tenacious spouses accomplish what they do. The selflessness of parenthood is only a glimmer of understanding in my inexperienced mind. And this selflessness goes on into the years when your children have children, a time when you can hatch so covert an operation to surprise and elate a spread-out family together, if only for a few days. Here’s to the selflessness that my family embodies. May I some day—after more wandering—be able to achieve what they have.