December 22, 2017
I guess I thought this first Christmas without Dad would be the same–just with him absent. As if he were in another room, or perhaps away on the annual hunting trips he took with his father and uncles and cousin in the Adirondack mountains.
He took an entire week of his vacation every year to hunt, only a few times coming home with a deer. The longer he hunted, the older he got, the less interested he seemed to be in the hunt and the more invested he became in just being in the woods. He used to tell the story of unexpectedly coming upon his father one afternoon on the back of the mountain. How he stood and watched my grandfather sitting with his back up against a Hemlock tree in the sun sleeping. And how after that, hemlocks always made him think of his father, asleep there in the autumn woods.
He would come home changed. He would have grown a beard, or the scratchy start of one. He would be tousled and strange like an ascetic who could not communicate what it was that he had been seeking or had found. He spoke of the dinners his cousin would make: huge (beef) steaks marinated for days and cooked outside. A strange kind of asceticism, perhaps. But the long days out of doors had worked something in him: gratitude, I think. Gratitude for his silent father and the company of men. And gratitude for the wonder of the woods: of moving for hours by compass and sun on the back of the mountain; doing the work of listening and watching, being part of the forest itself.
He would say in later years, that he was relieved when he did not see deer and have to decide whether or not to shoot. And that after his father was gone, every year, he would look for a hemlock tree to sit beneath and sleep. As if what he was hunting were not deer at all, but some communion with the memories the woods held.
These are my father’s memories. –And, yes, my memories of his memories. So I walk with him –or after him–in those woods. Now it is my turn to look for a place to sit in the sun and commune both with what is gone and what is left.
It really had not occurred to me before this, that this would be a different holiday altogether. That along with my father, and my parents’ home, that a time was gone, too. And while some of the traditions of the holiday remained for us to enact, we were the ephemera now. We were what was passing, while the forest of the holidays would remain.
Is this what it is like to age? To see discrete lives within the times we live? –Like a patch of sun beneath a great hemlock tree, a patch of brief ground illuminated, then gone?