There was a time when places like New Jersey and Long Island held an exotic allure for me. Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel lived there after all. They were distant, sophisticated places, a world away from suburban Phoenix which was the only place I really knew. Then I came to Georgetown.

As Thanksgiving rolls around and I talk with first-year students about pre-registration for the second semester, I can’t help but think of my friends from freshman year and the way they set in motion what was to become an important part of my undergraduate experience. They invited me to come home with them for the holidays, and I haven’t looked at New Jersey or Long Island or just about anywhere else in the same way since.

My friend Mitch initiated this aspect of my education when he invited me to spend Thanksgiving with him and his family in North Jersey. Thanksgiving 1978 was the first time I took Amtrak, the first time I ventured into New York City and the first time I met an honest to God Jewish family. My college experience was off and running.

The next year, my friends Anne and Erin invited me to their homes to spend time with their families. Erin lived in a town with what was, to my ears anyway, the Camelot-sounding name of Far Rockaway. Her mom and aunts and brothers and sisters made me feel completely welcome and at home on their little patch of Long Island. True, we had the whole Irish Catholic Democrat thing in common, which it turned out meant a lot, but I quickly learned that in many ways Erin and I had inhabited different planets as we grew up.

Anne also lived on Long Island. I don’t remember the name of her town, but I do remember that it had an ACME, a kind of store that I thought existed only on television or in the movies. (For some reason, ACME had always struck me as too cliche or generic a word to actually be the real name of a grocery store. I mean it was the store where Wile E. Coyote shopped. How could it be real?) From Anne’s family I learned that you can bake clams. And then actually eat them. Stunning. Meeting them also taught me that there were people – even good, smart people – who did not know that the term “Catholic Republican” was an oxymoron.

Another year, my friend Mike brought me home with him to assachusetts. He was from a family that didn’t talk much about religion or politics. I had heard that such families existed, but now I was sitting down with one for Easter dinner. Mike’s mother was a strong, hard-working single mom with what would have to be described as one of the “wickedest” Boston accents ever recorded. I loved listening to her talk. I don’t think she knew she had an accent. Fascinating to this fledgling linguistics major.

Jane lived on fifth Darnall, the floor above mine. Her family took me into their Memphis home for more than one holiday. I loved being with them. They were outdoorsy and just a little bit rowdy. Her father took us waterskiing in Arkansas, patiently dragging us behind that boat for hours with a huge smile on his face the whole time. He clearly loved his kids, and their home-from-college friends like me got to share in that glow. Jane took me to Graceland, an educational experience in itself. Her dog’s name was Munch. I have no idea why I remember that, but I do.

When I spent Thanksgiving with Jay and his family in Philadelphia (or I guess I should really say “on the Main Line”), I had my first up-close experience of the socio-economic complexity of a place like Georgetown. Jay’s family was big and Catholic and noisy, like many families I knew, including mine. But they were unlike any family I had ever known. They had a tennis court and a maid. They knew that robin’s egg blue boxes and white satin ribbons meant Tiffany’s, and they had the dog-eared catalogue to prove it. They wore argyle sweaters to football games and jackets to Thanksgiving dinner. I was simultaneously enticed and intimidated by them and their way of being.

I didn’t get credits for any of those trips, but I learned plenty from them. They were a huge part of my Georgetown education. In the years since then, I have done a lot of traveling and even lived for a while in the Middle East, but I can honestly say that those Hoya holiday visits to my friends’ homes helped shape me and form my view of human experience in a way that no subsequent travel has. I loved them.

Safe travels this Thanksgiving, my beloved fellow Hoyas.

Fr. Ryan Maher, S.J., is an assistant dean for Georgetown College. He can be reached at AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT. appears every other Friday, with Maher and Fr. James Schall, S.J., alternating as writers.

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