I’ve heard it said that this is the most wonderful time of the year. It’s true that December has always been the one month that we could all take time to congregate, and to let the noise of school or work be replaced by something more peaceful, familiar and comforting. It seemed right that this month fell during winter. As the school holiday drew closer, I would yearn for something warmer. My dad’s oversized wool socks, the smell of mom’s potato pancakes sizzling in the frying pan, my grandmother’s afghan and the corner of the couch it went so perfectly with; these were the pieces of home’s mosaic. It wasn’t complicated patchwork, but it made leaving bittersweet. I suspect that this will never change.
The usual December holiday cues are absent now. I haven’t seen snow in over two years and it’s been far too long since my mom and I indulged in our yearly winter tradition of watching The Sound of Music for the umpteenth time. Despite the shift in scenery, my mind has been recently adrift with images of home. Perhaps the animals are to blame, busy as they are expanding and nurturing families of their own. The woodland is ripe with the activity of new additions, adding a sense of urgency to my desire to get out of the office. They grow up quickly, when prying jaws do not snatch them up first.
Returning from a brief afternoon drive, I saw warthogs with several babies who were barely a week old. I watched them run with tails turned up to the sky towards a glorious mud puddle just waiting to be wallowed in. We were quick to remark that they were playing hazardously close to the pride of lion less than a kilometer away. The cats had appeared committed to the all-consuming task of sleeping in the shade, and were thus (I hoped) too pre-occupied to bother with these tiny youngsters. We left the piglets to their frolicking, willing them aloud to avoid the feline filled thicket over the hill. A few days later, we passed a herd of impala along the airstrip road and attempted to spot the young ones, without whom the rainy season would be incomplete. They were nowhere to be found, and for a short moment I worried that they had already succumbed to the voracious appetites of the wild dogs. I breathed a sigh of relief when the guide pointed out the cluster of little legs hidden in the brush. There they were in the “nursery,” concealed from danger, at least temporarily. On both occasions I arrived back in camp feeling lighter than when I had left. No heavy heart or foul mood is immune to the endearing innocence of newborns. Watch a baby elephant struggle to lift its first branch with a trunk he is not yet accustomed to, and I promise you’ll laugh, remembering all the falls and scrapes of childhood, and the magic of first steps.
With no small thanks to the emergence of all things green and new, December remains as wonderful as in years past, albeit dotted by pangs of isolation from what used to be. Were I to claim that I never longed to go back there, to sink into those soft cushions, I’d be lying. Is it possible to be homesick and still feel at home? If my introduction to the wild has taught me anything, it’s that a home is often mobile. When the hunt begins, the den has to move. Then there are those who keep returning to us, despite their skittishness upon being discovered. The leopard that stalks between tents and the kudu that huddle by our boardwalks when storms descend. I’ve been told that they are seeking safety here. I can’t say that I’m much different. Instinct tells us where we need to stay and when we should change direction. That’s what makes it okay to miss it all and to acknowledge the doubt surrounding my choices. Few leaps are taken without missteps and glances to the path not taken. This December is markedly different than the others, but I believe my feet are planted in the right spot. I’m thinking of family today, wishing I was home and reassured by the inkling that I might already be there.