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Observations

I’ll Be Gone for Christmas

The gift of escaping and passing along a mother’s curious nature

Illustration by Kevin Fales

Travel during the Christmas season is my way of clearing my head of the clutter that can weigh down the celebration. I just need a few deep breaths beneath trees that don’t have lights on them. And a spare winter landscape regenerates my spirit like nothing else.

I first discovered how meaningful such a journey could be when my son was barely school age. It was 20 years ago, just after our mom died, and my youngest brother, Jimmy, and I were struggling to reinvent the holiday season without her.

I invited Jimmy, whose eccentric education in anthropology and fishing made him an ideal camp companion, to join my son and me in a nearby state park.

As we settled into a campsite, I realized that I had been so fixated on keeping the planning minimal that I had packed no chairs, no plates, no knife. I did bring salt and pepper, a big cake of lavender soap and one plastic fork. It was a few days after I’d hosted a Christmas event for 50 people; I was so tired I was stupid.

My brother was undaunted. Before I had discovered I’d also forgotten firewood, he had chicken seasoned and cooking nicely on his portable grill—gamely making do with the single plastic utensil. I headed to a nearby store for split logs.

When I returned, my son was barefoot. In the time I’d been gone, he’d cast his rod into the lake, then waded in after it—soaking socks and shoes. He appeared delighted to be wearing leather work gloves on his feet, like some giant splay-footed bird cozied up to the grill. Uncle Jimmy was already steaming the socks dry.

After eating, we hiked to a spectacular scenic overlook. That was when I consciously noted Jimmy’s pink stocking cap. The hat was familiar. And comforting. It had been knitted by our mother. In her passion for handcrafts, Mom would get stuck in loops of creativity. Jimmy was the beneficiary of the Year of the Knitted Caps. By wearing one, he brought her along.

Jimmy also inherited Mother’s adaptability and resourcefulness. We both have a heaping share of her curiosity. She taught us to pause often on any walk, to study stones and insects and scat. She was monumentally successful in opening our eyes to the natural world.

After we took in the view from the overlook, we began exploring cautiously. I focused my attention on my son, introducing him to nopales and miniscule fungi. But watching Jimmy bobbing through the woods in that pink hat, I realized it was I who most needed the lessons of this day away from the holiday: a reminder to be the mother to my son that she had been to me.