As a teacher of memoir writing, I’m often struck by the way my Montana students who were born and raised here write about the land: like it’s a character, not just a setting. I have certain students with whom I’ve worked every week for nearly two years, students whose close personal relationships outside the classroom remain mysteries to me, but whose deep and abiding love for a certain section of river or mountain range I’ve come to fully understand.
I see this same sensibility emerging in my younger son, Isaac, the sole member of our family born in Montana. Isaac seems to belong to this place and its land in an effortless and organic way, in spite of his coastal parents and Minnesota-born older brother, so much so that it makes me wonder about forces at work beyond simply genes and parenting.
On a drizzly fall afternoon in Missoula, I’m midway through the drive to Isaac’s preschool when the snow starts to fall. Arriving at the school, I scan the field for him as always do, looking for his red fleece hat and the dark blue jacket he’d opted to wear that morning. But on this day, through the rapidly increasing snowflakes, I don’t see him.
While Isaac’s preschool is 3,985 feet above sea level, our house in town is 787 feet lower at 3,198. This matters because, often, when it’s rainy at home, snow is falling at school, even though it’s only a seven-minute drive. Such is the magic of Montana, where Isaac can spend the day at school making snowmen and return home to find a damp and muddy backyard.
My son’s teacher walks over to me with a bemused look on her face. The mother of three school-aged children, she’s refreshingly unexcitable, the kind of person who, if your child had disappeared, might simply wander over to where you were standing and casually mention that he was missing, exuding utmost confidence that he’d be back. And you’d trust her.
“Do you see Isaac?” she asks me, glancing up a steep hill on the north end of the property, which is also her home.
I follow her gaze to the place where the forest begins, the tall dark trees of the subalpine zone. Partway up is an enormous ponderosa pine. New to me when I moved to Montana from Minnesota nearly five years ago, the tree seems almost otherworldly, as though it were devised to entertain children with its vanilla-scented bark shaped like jigsaw puzzle pieces.
Isaac and his classmates eat lunch under this tree in the snow-free circle at its base. This is where I spy my son’s blue jacket, his red hat resting on his backpack and his curved form protected by the boughs as snow falls all around.
“He’s asleep,” his teacher says, with a half-smile. I love her not only for appreciating the sweetness of the moment, but for having simply let the nap happen when and where it did, not keeping Isaac on schedule with everyone else or moving him indoors.
For a 4-year-old, this is what being a Montanan means: feeling so much at ease outside that he can nod off after lunch on a cold afternoon as though it were the most natural thing in the world—and perhaps it is—to rest beneath a tree on a mattress of pine needles.
I walk through the snow towards the tree, trailing two of Isaac’s classmates who’ve noticed him lying there. Their giggles rouse him from sleep, and as they peel off to distractions elsewhere, he blinks his eyes open. “Mama,” he says, a smile blossoming on his face. “I was hoping you’d wake me up.”
Emily Freeman (M.F.A. '08) teaches writing in Missoula, Montana.