Ever since my younger son could toddle, my family has taken holiday walks along a small lake edged in shore grass and slash pines—an ideal spot for bird-watching—near my parents’ house in Central Florida. On those days when we’re visiting them between Christmas and New Year’s, we can usually don shorts and sandals, even if the neighborhood palm trees are weighted down with Christmas lights and inflatable Santas, softly whirring alive. One of us might carry a pair of binoculars, and because my husband and I are writers, a pencil and a small notebook come along, too. We may find anhingas—those long-necked snakebirds sunning themselves on oak trees—sandhill cranes, egrets, ibis, and killdeers. And if we’re lucky, the purple gallinule, whose bright plumage looks like he’s ready for a party.
My sons often run ahead, racing each other on the path. But sometimes they stay quiet and hold the hands of their grandparents, without being asked to. My husband and I then lead the way with our Chihuahua, so I can’t quite hear what they are talking and laughing about. Only when I turn around do I see at least one of them is always pointing out a bird at the lake.
I’ve come to treasure this time as a sort of reset after the hullabaloo of shopping, after our giant meals of South Indian and Filipino dishes such as chicken curry and pancit, plus lots of cake (my and my husband’s birthdays are also in December), and after opening presents. Our three-mile walks around the lake are a cherished time away from screens and new loot from under the Christmas tree.
We’re not exactly in the wilderness. The lake borders a fairly busy residential thoroughfare, but the birds do a good job of camouflaging themselves—if you weren’t paying attention, the wily family of three sandhill cranes frozen in midstride could easily resemble a patch of small, dead trees.
On this particular day, though, the shock of color from the purple gallinule sends everyone into a tizzy, and my husband and elder son sketch it quickly before it ducks into the shore grass. Then the boys plot how and when they will draw that magnificent bird with crayons as soon as we’re home. As we turn back to my parents’ street, the sun beats down on us. My husband and I are the ones falling back this time, and I can’t help it: I bring out my phone and snap a picture. I didn’t take a single photo of the gallinule, the ibis, or even the sandhill cranes that day, but the picture I want to keep and remember is that of my parents each holding one of my sons’ hands.
We’ll soon make the twelve-hour drive back to our home in Mississippi, and we don’t yet know that because of the pandemic, we won’t see them again for nine long months. For once I’m glad I broke my rule and pulled out my phone. I hold on to those bird calls and treasure my sons’ bird sketches from that week. I hold on to that light. That’s a present I can’t find under any tree.