From the Homefront: Being away from family during the holidays

Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of aviation forces at Coast Guard headquarters, for 16 years. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Military Family Advisory Network.

Coast Guard Ombudsman-at-Large Fran DeNinno serves a Thanksgiving meal for crews and families stationed at Patrol Forces Southwest Asia in Manama, Bahrain. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley

Coast Guard Ombudsman-at-Large Fran DeNinno serves a Thanksgiving meal for crews and families stationed at Patrol Forces Southwest Asia in Manama, Bahrain. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

Written by Shelley Kimball

If you are a member of a military family, then you probably know what it is like to spend holidays away from your family.

As we head into November, and the holidays are just on the horizon on our calendars, Coast Guard families offer tips on how they have made it a little easier to celebrate when we are far from our loved ones.

Portrait of Shelley Kimball.

Portrait of Shelley Kimball.

Fran DeNinno, ombudsman-at-large and whose husband is the commandant of the Coast Guard, knows what it is like to spend her holidays away. They have spent several Thanksgivings far from home.

“Since my husband has been commandant, we have visited our Coast Guard members on Thanksgiving either in Bahrain, England, Saudi Arabia and other far flung duty stations,” she said. “It’s so nice to share the holiday with our Coast Guard family.”

Some of her other ideas for celebrating when you are missing family:

  • Use Skype of Facetime to bring your family to you. “It helps me to see their faces,” she said, “I relish their smiles for the rest of the day.”
  • Invite others who are away from their families to spend time with you. “I have opened my home to others who are spending holidays away from families, we enjoy a big pot luck meal together,” she said. “It’s a great way to extend my ‘family.’”
  • Make sure you maintain the traditions that make the holiday special for you. “I try to replicate at least one or two traditions as well even if it’s just for myself. I go to an evening service on Christmas Eve, preferably one with candlelight. It helps to remind me of the true meaning of the holiday,” she said. “I also try to eat tamales on Christmas Eve, because we always had them growing up.”

 

DeNinno also said serving others at soup kitchens for the homeless helps give her a solid perspective during the holiday season.

“It helps me take my mind off of my ‘needs’ and concentrate on giving back to others,” she said.

The Kahn family makes celebrating the holidays alone easier by volunteering while Lt. Cmdr. Dan Kahn is away from home. Photo courtesy of Erin Kahn.

The Kahn family makes celebrating the holidays alone easier by volunteering while Lt. Cmdr. Dan Kahn is away from home. Photo courtesy of Erin Kahn.

Erin Kahn agreed that volunteer opportunities are a great help when you are missing family. She was home with her children while her husband was out on a cutter for Thanksgiving and Christmas last year.

“We stayed busy with volunteer opportunities that helped put what was really important into perspective,” she said.

Being home with small children means that she has to find opportunities that allow kids to participate, too.

“It can be tough finding the right fit for your family, like being able to volunteer with two young kids, but really digging in, staying busy and getting involved helped us forget that our loved one had to be somewhere else for a bit,” she said.

She helped by assisting the ombudsman in gathering and distributing meal boxes and holiday gifts for Coasties, working with a moms group to plant and harvest vegetables for a local food bank (providing 3,400 pounds of carrots last year), and helping to distribute clothing to needy children at a church clothing bank.

“I say it was the most important because my kids and myself got to see firsthand how our efforts made a difference. My son loved to ‘help’ break down the dozens of totes filled with clothes every weekend. Both my kids interacted with wonderful families that needed a little extra help,” she said.

Incorporating the kids into volunteer opportunities has not only made the solitary holidays easier, but it has had an added benefit.

Amber Clark, and her husband Petty Officer Second Class Pernell Clark, make sure they communicate the reasons for their absences during holiday gatherings. Photo courtesy of Amber Clark.

Amber Clark, and her husband Petty Officer Second Class Pernell Clark, make sure they communicate the reasons for their absences during holiday gatherings. Photo courtesy of Amber Clark.

“There is nothing better then making someone smile and knowing you helped make someone’s day a little easier,” she said.

Kahn said she also makes plans with other families in her area who are not going to be with their families.

Amber Clark calls that getting together with your “family.”

“Friends that become family,” Clark said. Many say blood is thicker than water, however, we have found that our friends sometimes treat us more like family than our own extended family.”

Clark said it is really important to communicate to your extended family about your absence from holiday gatherings – make sure everyone is clear on why you can’t travel to see everyone.

“Most importantly, do not apologize for not being near the extended family as other family members may be,” Clark said. “We create our homes and our lives where ever we are stationed. Continuity for your family unit is the most important thing overall because it will then allow you to enjoy the holidays without the stress of travel and pressure.”

Alex Reed gets silly matching t-shirts for herself and her husband, Bryan, to wear during Thanksgiving. Photo courtesy of Alex Reed.

Alex Reed gets silly matching t-shirts for herself and her husband, Bryan, to wear during Thanksgiving. Photo courtesy of Alex Reed.

Spending the holidays on your own doesn’t have to be sad experience – make traditions that are unique to your family unit, Clark said.

Alex Reed did just that last year when she made up a new Thanksgiving tradition for herself and her husband, Bryan Reed, who will be finishing up Officer Candidate School two days before Thanksgiving this year. Last year, he was just returning from a long patrol.

“I started getting silly holiday-themed matching shirts for Thanksgiving, and it’s been really fun,” she said.

Last year’s shirts said “Feast Mode” with a picture of a turkey on them. She’s working on her idea for this year.

Sara Alger, whose husband Anthony is also at OCS, said she is started coming up with new ways to celebrate this Halloween. She and her husband had their first child at the end of June, and soon after, he left for school.

Sara Alger is developing traditions to make sure her husband is part of the holidays with their new baby, Alessa. Photo courtesy of Sara Alger.

Sara Alger is developing traditions to make sure her husband is part of the holidays with their new baby, Alessa. Photo courtesy of Sara Alger.

Alger has been trying to incorporate him, in his absence, in their new traditions. Although he missed going to the pumpkin patch with them, Alger found a way to make him a part of the trip.

“How I had him involved this year was asking him to pick out a certain pumpkin carving design,” she said. “So I carved one for him, me, and my daughter.”

He’ll be home just before Thanksgiving this year, and they have another new tradition to add to the holiday – moving.

“So we will be able to spend Thanksgiving on the road together to our new duty station. Not typically how you spend Thanksgiving, but it will be the one to remember,” she said.

Ed James and his wife Christie Skype with their son, Petty Officer Third Class Nathan James while is away on Christmas Day. It worked so well last year, they are already planning to do it again this year. Photo courtesy of Christie James.

Ed James and his wife Christie Skype with their son, Petty Officer Third Class Nathan James while is away on Christmas Day. It worked so well last year, they are already planning to do it again this year. Photo courtesy of Christie James.

Technology can also help close up the miles between family members. Christie James, whose son Nathan is a petty officer third class on the Coast Guard cutter Munro, said she and her family celebrated Christmas together last year over Skype. She said Nathan chose which presents would be opened next, and he was able to watch and hear everything that was happening. No stories to share second-hand, no jokes to repeat. They even made some of the same food in both locations so they could eat together.

“Remember to ‘pass your Coastie around’ so he or she can see everybody and everything from all angles,” she said.

This year, the Christmas Skype session will be even more exciting because Nathan’s wife and their new daughter will be with Nathan’s parents while the crew prepares to take possession of a new cutter.

“It worked out even better than I expected because everything was so spontaneous,” she said, “And we were all a part of it.”

What would you add to this list? Tell us in the comments section below!

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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