You Can Take It With You

Our relocation to Northern California couldn’t have come as more of a shock.

“Moving to California is a lot like living in the future,” my friend Peter said to me, as I was fresh from the trauma of moving from Sag Harbor to Marin County one year ago. 

Though Los Angeles runs through both sides of my family for generations, our relocation to Northern California couldn’t have come as more of a shock. The early days of moving felt a bit like trying on a foreign country for size — learning new ways of dressing (Patagonia and Birkenstocks) and socializing (make plans but don’t commit too forcefully). Also, fragrance is forbidden, and recreational cannabis has replaced the evening cocktail.

Since graduating from college, I’ve moved about a dozen times now. In my next lifetime, I vow to come back as a minimalist. Mostly, I’m tired of hanging and then rehanging all my artwork. 

I’m as attached to the watercolor paintings by my grandmother that adorn my walls as I am to the hundreds and hundreds of books that have followed me from coast to coast, their spines newly arranged in a different order each time. I never feel quite settled — like I am home — until those things have been put away, breathing familiar life into unfamiliar spaces. 

We last called Sag Harbor home, and our return trips to the East End last summer and fall filled me with a deep and wonderful feeling of nostalgia. The shifting, magnificent light, the seasons, the warm ocean you can swim in, our friends and their growing children. 

I feel as at home in Sag Harbor as anyplace I’ve ever lived.

Some say that after a cross-country move it takes a solid year to fully settle into new surroundings. Or maybe it’s a decade. Regardless, it’s the traditions we take with us, wherever our destination. 

I come from a small, insular family, and it never feels like Christmastime until my father and mother and I are again sleeping in the same house. Last December, our first Christmas in Northern California, was a year of beginning again. My mother’s holiday cookies and flaky pie crust held up just fine. Yet the magic of Christmas morning felt like we had suddenly swapped hemispheres. The balmy, foggy air. The fragrant eucalyptus trees that would never change color and lose their leaves. 

Looking back now, it didn’t feel like we had fully arrived in California until we decorated our first Christmas tree. 

I’m a latecomer to Christmas. For years, when it was just my husband and me living on the Upper West Side, he would dutifully purchase a tree from a nearby lot on Central Park West, hauling it into our 14th-floor apartment and stringing up a few sets of drugstore lights as I sat idly by, thinking only of the hassle of soon dismantling it. 

But slowly I’m coming around. 

Last Christmas, our two children, Theo and Violet, settled on a whimsical, six-foot-tall evergreen. Once home, going into the garage and dusting off our box of decorations moved me, unexpectedly, to tears. Unwrapping the intricate ornaments that my grandmother had hung on her tree in Hollywood those many decades ago, interspersed with others from my own Southern California childhood, next to the ones that our children had made in Sag Harbor, their glitter and sequins still attached. 

Finally, an outbreath. A feeling of coming home. The twinkling white lights. The angel holding court above the dozens of ornaments that together tell the story of our family. The same ones our children will eventually inherit. 

A wise former therapist used to talk in terms of how many summers he had left. He promised to relish each and every one. In our many conversations over the years, he has gently nudged me to do the same. We’re here and then we’re not. Best to dive into the ocean whenever the opportunity presents itself.

And now another December is here. I’m still not used to warm Christmas days spent in only a T-shirt. I’m also unsure on which coast we will permanently reside. But in the middle of finding our way, I vow to make the most of this holiday season — recreating traditions that ground us in our past while also embracing our new community of friends.

Come January, in the spirit of starting over (and with the freezing cold, shark-infested Pacific Ocean in such close proximity), I will keep my East End brethren in mind when I take my first Polar Bear Plunge on New Year’s Day, swapping East Hampton’s Main Beach for Stinson Beach, outside Bolinas.

Amanda M. Fairbanks is a former reporter at The Star.