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Silver Threads: Going home again gets harder with age

T’is the season — for people to be thinking about getting on the road for Christmas visits with relatives and friends in other towns and cities, or coming back to New Orleans to spend the holidays with Mama and ‘em.

(I used to think “Mama and ‘em” was a phrase made up by Vic and Nat’ly cartoonist Bunny Matthews, until I heard a guy actually say it as he jumped on an elevator and spotted a friend there. “How’s yoah mama and ‘em?” he asked.)

I’d like to see some statistics on how many people leave New Orleans for the holidays and how many come home, assuming that you can come home again, and not — as novelist Thomas Wolfe would have it, that you can’t. He was writing in the ‘40s about the difficulty of rekindling your sense of belonging when you return to the country or a small town after having left it for a more sophisticated place and lived there for a while.

Wolfe wasn’t writing about older people, but I know — secondhand — that going home is even harder for some of them. In his 70s, an uncle of mine became depressed after a disabling heart attack — doctors didn’t put in stents at the time — and early retirement. He thought that moving back to the village bordering the homeplace of his boyhood would be just the thing to lift his spirits. It didn’t, even in the midst of a loving extended family who had never left. It was even harder on my aunt — but who knew? He died there six years later, and she returned to the big-little town and the activities she’d grown to love.

The other couple — both retired and friends of ours for years in New Orleans — left just before Hurricane Katrina for his own “homeplace” for some of  the same reasons that my uncle had. The jury is out on that relocation: He seems content; she’s not at all. At her behest, they’re here on visits as much as possible.

You’d have to infer from these two examples that women are more reluctant to go home than men are and it‘s older ones who feel the most stress. But a young couple who lived across the street from us years ago had the reverse experience. He had put himself through night college, risen from a drugstore clerk to manager, then been offered a job as a pharmaceutical rep in a large city “up north.” They moved — kit and caboodle and kids — and she lasted a year. She missed Mama and ‘em (and “Noo Orleeeens”) despite the tidy surburb in which they had landed, the easy access — rail, no less — to the considerable entertainments of town, and the superior schools where her children thrived. Back they came, and thank goodness her husband was willing.

Next door to us now, a middle-aged couple’s house is mostly shuttered and dark except during their increasingly infrequent occupancy.  He has a job a thousand miles away and wasn’t born and bred here anyway. But she was, and they’re “home” every chance they get. I’m sure the Christmas wreath will go up on their door any day now.

For some folks — young and old — home is, indeed, “where the heart is.” For others it’s where the action is. In earlier days that was true for me; the newspaper was a kind of home. Now, it’s wherever my husband and our kids are. Home is many things, and whether we can go there again for good depends on the individual. But one thing’s for sure, we all like to be there  for Christmas.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of The Times Picayune Living section, for which she wrote Silver Threads until her retirement. Email her at


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