At holidays, those who stayed make 'home' home

James Stewart is the reluctant Bedford Falls lifer, George Bailey, in "It's a Wonderful Life."

Story highlights

  • Bob Greene says people going home for the holidays look forward to familiar faces
  • He says sometimes people take for granted those who choose not to move away
  • Those who stay may have regrets, but they are the solid foundation of communities
  • Greene: When we go home, we should be thankful for the people who already are home
This is for those who stayed.
For the ones who, regardless of the reason, never picked up and moved.
This is for those who right now are right where they always have been.
Who aren't going home for the holidays, because home is where they already are.
This week the airports, highways, train stations and bus depots will be jammed. Americans, as they always are in the week leading up to Christmas, are on the move. Many are heading home.
So this may be as good a time as any to reflect on what that word -- "home" -- means. When people eagerly head home for the holidays, what is their true destination?
It isn't merely geographic. When you set foot again in the place you're from, it's not the street signs that warm you, or the sight of the public library or the town hall. Those are reminders, guideposts -- but that's not why you're there.
Home feels the way it does because of the people who never left -- the people who, with gratitude, you can count on, the family and friends you're coming home to. Without them, it's just a dot on a map.
They're the ones who are too often taken for granted. The ones who, in an era of constant transience and relentless motion, elected long ago, for their own good reasons, against being footloose. Who dropped anchor early, and stayed put while others were departing.
Just how taken for granted are they? The U.S. Census Bureau, which keeps track of seemingly everything, doesn't keep track of them. Robert B. Bernstein, a Census official, told me that there are no figures available for the number of people who have stayed in the same town for their entire lives.
But there are clues-- clues about the impulse for allegiance -- to be found in related census data that Bernstein and I delved into together. Fifty-nine percent of Americans live in the same state where they were born. Midwesterners are the most loyal to where they come from: 70.2 percent live in the state of their birth. The Western states manage to keep only 49.3 percent of those who were born there.
If you live in Louisiana, you're among the 78.8 percent of .your fellow residents who were born there, the highest percentage in the U.S., followed by Michigan at 76.6 percent and Ohio at 75.1 percent. Nevada has the lowest percentage of people born there: 24.3, followed by Florida, next-lowest, with 35.2 percent and Arizona with 37.7 percent. Nationwide, according to the most recent census numbers available, 45.3 million people live in a different house from the one where they lived a year ago, and 6.7 million of them live in a different state.
Perhaps the most beloved holiday movie is "It's a Wonderful Life," in which George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, is a man who never moved away from Bedford Falls, and who is not without occasional pangs of regret about it. Generations of audiences have silently cheered for him. But the Jimmy Stewart character had a motion-picture camera trained on him; in real life, the men and women who stay often do so with no audience to applaud their fidelity to place.
We live in a society in which wanderlust is considered an unchallenged virtue. For generations, it has been said approvingly that someone has "set off to make it big," has "gone off to conquer the world." Getting out, seeking fresh horizons, has been made a celebrated and acclaimed goal, seldom questioned.
And those who stay behind? They do so for a variety of reasons: genuine love of a place; family obligations; a job that feels steady and safe. You sense, though, that some who stay may, like George Bailey, from time to time have second thoughts. Were they reluctant to roll the dice? Did an opportunity somewhere bigger and brighter open and then close before they worked up the resolve to say yes? Did they tell themselves that tomorrow they would make the grand move so many times that all the tomorrows finally ran out?
Every person has his or her own answer. In these December weeks, in town after American town, people will come home for the holidays, and it will feel like home because of the faces that remain there, the voices that are so familiar. Do those who stay ever ask themselves whether they have missed out on something in the wider world beyond? Perhaps. Human nature dictates that we often fixate on the path not taken.
But a town would not be a town were it not for those who vote in favor of it every day of their lives with their continued presence, who make it feel solid and permanent not just because they know the place so well, but because they know themselves just as well, and are confident enough in who they are that they don't necessarily have to look elsewhere for affirmation.
The world changes and becomes barely recognizable; even the tiniest towns transform themselves over time. If you're heading home for the holidays this week, you may notice that the old movie theater is a coffee shop now, or that the pharmacy has become a bank branch.
The sight of those faces, though, older but somehow forever young; the sound of those voices, voices you would know if you heard them anywhere on the planet, but that, now and always, are specific to this one and only place. . .
This is a time, and a season, to be thankful for those voices. For those faces.
For the ones who chose to stay.
As the holidays arrive, you may be coming home.
They -- in every way that counts -- are home.