Holiday essay: ‘Christmas in Liberia, Christmas at Home,’ by Shannon Gibney

Curl up and read this tale by Minnesota writer Shannon Gibney as you celebrate the season. 

We hadn’t been back to Liberia, the tiny coastal country where we had met and fallen in love, in seven years. Not since we married, had three children and shacked up in a small house in south Minneapolis; not since Ballah had gotten his MBA while enduring too many menial jobs; not since one of our babies had died; not since we had almost broken countless times under the weight of a cross-cultural relationship and all of its precarious expectations.

We hadn’t been back to Liberia for so long, we were starting to believe that the idea of it was the same thing as the actual smell, taste, feel, sound, sight of it. This was inconvenient for me, the mother of two Liberian-American children. I wanted Boisey, then 5, and Marwein, then 1, to know both sides of their heritage.

But contemplating the return was a far deeper quandary for Ballah. Born in Monrovia, he’d lived the first 26 years of his life there, and had envisioned growing old there. For Ballah, “home” began with Liberia, regardless of where it might end. It was a place where he was not divided. He was not “Liberian and American,” “Black American and Liberian”; he was simply a normal Liberian man.

Knowing that his parents had never met their beloved grandchildren, whom they Skyped with almost every week, was making me ill with guilt, especially considering that the kids saw my parents in Michigan regularly. And my feet itched with the desire to walk across unfamiliar ground once more, to be on unmoored footing for a spell. Life in the so-called First World had many advantages, but one thing it consistently lacked was a clear view of the rest of the world. I had been lucky enough to travel and to learn this. In the end, for all these reasons and so many others, Ballah and I began preparations for an expensive return to a homeland on one side, and a visit from well-meaning strangers bound by love and difference on the other.

• • •

Picture a 2,400-square-foot house with huge bay windows, a loft that looks over a spacious living room in which the centerpiece is a 30-foot Christmas tree shining with colorful lights and ornaments. The house sits 15 minutes from a midsize Midwestern college town. With the snow blowing onto the porch and tall pine trees stationed along the walk to the front door, you might believe for a minute that you are in the middle of the woods. It is so quiet, so peaceful. My parents built this house when I was 12. They poured all their resources and heart and soul into it, in order to build what they call their dream house.

“It’s basically a five-star hotel that I don’t have to pay for, and where people occasionally bother me but mostly leave me alone to recover from what life has done to me back in the real world,” I tell my girlfriends. They laugh, remembering the pictures of walnut-crusted walleye and garlic mashed potatoes I’ve texted them. Behold! My unabashed bourgie privilege! I wrote them. Yes, I was raised by upper-middle-classy white people whose culinary skills are unmatched. See my shame, as I savor the most delicious fish I have ever tasted. And I don’t even like fish.

All of this is why, ever since I can remember, the thought of spending holidays at home has instantly lifted me. In the midst of clearing out my locker before winter break in high school: Tonight I can start the dough for five different kinds of holiday cookies, all the while belting out John Denver and the Muppets!

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