I lost my son and my holiday spirit in Kmart.

Maybe I didn’t actually lose sight of my son, maybe I lost sight of something else.  But he was mad at me, that I know for sure.  He was mad at me because I wouldn’t buy another bag of cheap Christmas candy and that’s really mean of me.  Very mean.  And sometimes when your mother does mean things you have to pout.

So he walked away from me.  Or maybe he just slowed his pace as I power walked on a mission through the big box store, the goal to check each item off my list as quickly as possible.  The clock ticking, my pace quickening and the corners of my mouth twitching in a frozen smile as I searched my heart for emergency holiday spirit.  Emergency holiday spirit is much different than the other holiday spirit we share on Instagram, sharing perfectly filtered pictures as every cell in our bodies burst to overflowing joy in a home warm with music and people we love.  Emergency holiday spirit is the one that keeps us from punching mall Santas in fits of UNwrapped packages of rage. Emergency holiday spirit reminds us to breathe as we stand uncomfortably close to strangers in line, needing just two more ingredients for the sugar cookie recipe, just two more ingredients and we can go home, make cookies with the people we love and finally feel the true holiday spirit.  Emergency holiday spirit won’t be written in the words of a carefully crafted status update written for the world to read.

I smiled at strangers and excused myself as another person merged in front me, stopping to paw through the clearance bin of fuzzy Christmas socks, and despite the fact that I’d already run my cart over their faces three times in my mind, I politely excused myself again.  Coming to nearly full stops while wanting to break into a full run, ready to plow over the next person looking for good deals on candy cane striped pajama bottoms, I felt the emergency holiday spirit in my jaw, clenching it closed in a frozen smile.

I rounded the crowded corner, breaking free from the crowd and turned around, fully expecting to see a sullen pouting child clomping a few feet behind me in one-size-too-big Muck boots because all his friends wear this size and so should he, but I didn’t see him.

And then I realized he was still mad at me.

I imagined he’d ducked into the jewelry department and hid behind a clearance rack of ugly costume jewelry, watching from a safe distance as I plowed my way through bargain shoppers like a human sized bowling ball.  Or maybe he side-stepped into the underwear aisle, standing just inside the row of boxer briefs value packs and just outside of my eyesight.

Or maybe he turned left when I turned right.  Or what if he went right when I went left.  Or maybe he didn’t move at all and he was still standing in the Christmas department gripping the bag of candy with his stubborn little fingers, waiting for me to return to him and to my senses about the whole misunderstanding.

I turned and retraced my footsteps, re-excusing myself to the same thrifty shoppers I navigated around the first time, this time with a complete disregard for personal space and without the frozen smile.  There was only one thing on my list at this point and he was four feet tall and in big trouble.

He wasn’t anywhere I looked, and I looked for a long time.  And by a long time I mean five minutes because when you can’t find your child time is measured in breaths.  Five minutes is long enough to search for your child before bee lining it to the service desk and aggressively interrupting the nice customer who’s trying to return his faulty foot bath without a receipt.

Every one of us is going about our day with our own agenda, our lists that need checking off, the little battles we’ve picked and those we haven’t, our demands seemingly more important than the next person’s.

Except mine was more important and I didn’t care that this guy’s foot bath didn’t make enough bubbles or that it was a gift and he didn’t have a receipt.  With each minute the reality that my son was either hidden in this giant store plotting my eventual cardiac event from under a pile of ugly sweaters, or worse, became a clamor in my head.   And struggling to keep the words coming out of my mouth significantly calmer and less frantic than the words swirling inside my head, I told the cashier I thought my nine year old son might be hiding from me somewhere in the store.

“He’s hiding from you?” She asked, looking at me sideways because, to be fair, it did sound strange.  Like this was some weird game of hide and seek gone awry and now I needed the employees to help me win.

“Yes.  I think he’s hiding from me and I can’t find him.”  Not that I was making a better case for myself.  I was 38 years old and losing to a nine year old.  “But I usually beat him at Checkers.”  I thought to myself, only adding to the anxious noise already filling my head.

Without hesitation, she asked for my son’s name and spoke clearly, her voice carrying his name throughout the store.  I didn’t like how it sounded and I felt ashamed that I wasn’t watching him more closely, how I was too busy clenching my jaw and checking my way down the checklist to notice him go wherever it was he went.  I’m not that mother.  I’m the neurotic, over-protective hen mother who doesn’t let him play in the sprinkler without a life jacket and snorkel.

In all fairness to me, it was a high powered sprinkler.

“C*** E****, please come to the service desk.  Your Mother is here and she gives up.  You win.”

“NO!  I don’t give up!  Do you hear me?  I do not give up!  Say that on your microphone.  Hand me that thing.  C***, this is your Mother speaking.  GET YOUR SPOILED MAD BUTT UP HERE NOW MISTER BECAUSE YOU ARE IN BIG TROUBLE.”

Except I didn’t actually say that.  And the employee didn’t make me feel badly for sucking at hide and seek.

And for the ten seconds I stood there, wondering what would happen if my son didn’t come running up to the service desk, what if he didn’t hear his name, what if he was still standing in the Christmas department, clutching that bag of candy, refusing to let me win.  Or what if he wasn’t in the store.  Or what if something else.

Ten seconds is a long time to be acutely aware of your own rapid inhaling.

And then I saw it.

The pompom of a little green velvet Santa hat bouncing over from the cash registers and I heard the clomping of one-size-too-big Muck boots coming my way.  His brown eyes bigger than goose eggs and brimming with the tears he’d been holding back, I hugged him as all his words came out.  Words like “sorry” and “sulking” and “scared” and “lost” until they stopped and we hugged.  Then I said words like “I love you” and “Don’t ever do that again” and “I was scared too” and “Remember that time I beat you at Battleship?”  His little green velvet Santa hat pressed against the fake fur of my red velvet Santa hat, the hats we’d both worn to the mall so we could be festive together and spread Christmas cheer.

I walked to the exit without the candy but with my boy, shaky and grateful, imagining that was the real feeling of Emergency Christmas cheer.

Renée Chalou

About Renée Chalou

Renée Chalou lives and raises her family in Presque Isle, where she owns a fitness center, LiveWell United. Her oldest son is in his second year at UMO, her daughter plans to attend UMPI in the spring and her youngest son is an active, happy 11 year old in 6th grade. From her life experiences as a homeschooling parent, blending a family, and transforming herself from an overweight, side-line mother to a competitive athlete mother and fitness leader in her community, she writes about what she knows: living life well even when it's not perfect. She writes about finding and clinging to the good even when it would be easy to focus on the bad, no matter what challenges life brings. Life in Northern Maine is wonderful, full of adventures and sub-zero temperatures. It's not for everybody and nobody claims it's easy. But it's a good life, it's hers and she'd like to share some of it with you.