The other day while dispatching the legions of expired press releases and newspapers that assemble in yard-high columns on my desk, I unearthed a packet of family photographs that I’d forgotten about.
My mom mailed them this summer after my family’s annual junket to Montana. They live in Minnesota, where I grew up, and the inconvenience of mending that spatial gap means our time together is sporadic. The photos put me in a wistful mood as I replayed the summer’s highlight reel, conducting a kind of seasonal postmortem.
One picture shows Mom, Dad and me below Clements Saddle at Glacier National Park. Another is of my sister, her husband and me at Lake McDonald Lodge, exhausted and begrimed after our backpacking trip, grinning and hoisting cold beers. Then there’s the heartwarming tableau of the whole family gathered at Tupelo Grille in Whitefish, toasting our fellowship before they embarked on the 1,200-mile voyage home.
Since leaving my hometown 13 years ago, these valedictions have become custom. My family and I have said goodbye with metronomic regularity, and it never gets easier.
I recall bidding my parents the first teary adieu when they dropped me off in San Diego, Calif., where I was based for a year as an AmeriCorps volunteer. Having just graduated from high school, my friends were matriculating into college and I was terrified by the prospect of spending the year with a team of strangers.
Painful as it was to watch my folks drive off, and despite my anxiety, the year that followed stands out as one of the most adventurous and rewarding experiences of my life.
Two years later, I felt a similar pang of homesickness as I waved goodbye to my dad from the front yard of my new home in Missoula.
The allure of the mountains had compelled me to transfer my course credits from a small university in northern Minnesota, where I’d been studying creative writing, to the University of Montana School of Journalism, where I graduated. Any misgivings I had about the transition were laved away by that first week in Montana, which my dad and I spent backpacking in Glacier Park, hiking from Goat Haunt over Stoney Indian Pass and out the Belly River, supping our evening meals and sipping whiskey under henna-hued sunsets that smoldered in the pall of the Robert Fire.
The trip left an indelible impression on me, and even as I choked with emotion hugging Dad goodbye I knew that I might not leave Montana.
After more than 10 years living in my adoptive state, the perennial goodbyes have not grown more merciful. There are always the lingering, lumpy-throated hugs, the silent, futile appeals for more proximity, more time together.
But the return to workaday life inevitably reaffirms my place in this remote corner of Montana, and the family vacations and their attendant goodbyes are reduced to some scribblings in a journal, which to me is the best agency for not forgetting.
After my recent workstation purge, a task I’ve now performed exactly once, the family photos were reabsorbed by the heaps of paper refuse, which grow with kudzu-like tenacity and strike careless poses on my desk.
The pictures represent a significant milestone, though, marking the tenth consecutive summer my family has visited me in Montana for our annual backpacking trip. We’ve camped in Glacier and Yellowstone, the Pintlers and the Beartooths, the Missions and the Swans, the Jewel and the Bob.
There’s no substitute for family, cliché as it sounds, and though I’ve found consummate surrogates in my colleagues at the Beacon and in my close-knit community of friends, the most cluttered workspace in the world couldn’t eclipse my family’s treasured visits.
I just might clean my desk more often.
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