The tires of my Ford Escort crunched on snow-packed roads while the defroster rattled in a futile attempt to melt the fractal ice collecting on my windshield. It was close to midnight on Christmas, 1985, and I was returning home after dropping my boyfriend off at his house.
The welcoming smell of a wood stove in some distant farmhouse occasionally filled the car, making me wonder about the people who lived there, warm inside, maybe watching TV or still visiting with lingering relatives.
Though it was a long time ago, I can still remember the hushed, insulated feeling I had driving alone on Minnesota roads that cold night, listening to John and Yoko on the radio singing about a happy Christmas, the year being over, a new one just begun.
But most of all, I remember being inexplicably sad.
From what I recall, that year was no different than any other. My grandparents had come and, as usual, they brought the turkey and gravy along with an obscene amount of home-baked cookies that disappeared soon after their arrival. My brother and his wife drove down from Minneapolis and my then-boyfriend had even come for dinner.
We ate too much, watched a movie, opened presents and did all the stuff that everyone does before wrapping it up and heading home.
In some foggy photos taken with my Vivitar camera, we all look happy. In one, my dad has his arm thrown over my mom’s shoulder while she makes a look of mock horror at the pile of dirty dishes and wrapping paper covering our dining room table. In another my grandfather sits in a chair with a cup of coffee in his hand and a smile on his face. I’m in a few, too, displaying heavily frosted hair and posing with my brother’s wife.
I can’t really remember any other details of that day, like what we talked about, if we laughed a lot, or if anyone argued. But I wish I did. It was the last Christmas we all spent together.
By the following year my parents had relocated to New England and not long after they divorced, as did my brother and his wife. My grandfather died of a stroke in the mid-’90s and my grandmother followed a few years later. Of course, the boyfriend and I broke up, too; it was high school, after all.
There’s no way I could have known any of those eventualities driving home that night. But maybe like some sort of echo from the future, some deeper part of me already missed what I would one day no longer have.
Recently, over a glass of wine, a friend told me that said she wished she’d known about the “lasts” in life as they were happening, from the smallest to the biggest. Things like the last time she took her kids to the water park before they eventually outgrew it or the last good talk she had with her father before Alzheimer’s crept in and stole conversation altogether.
If we knew they were the lasts, would we live them differently? Who can say? Maybe we’d choose do them exactly the same, but instead of just being present for those times we’d grasp them tight, recording every moment so we could one day play them back, remembering every detail of time spent with those we hold close.
Even though most of us never forget the fragility of it all, the whole “life is short” thing, it’s still easy to lose the essence of it when the noise of everyday life gets loud. And sometimes we find ourselves just being present, instead of truly being there.
I’m very fortunate. My husband has a big family, and each year on Christmas everyone comes over, we eat too much, watch a movie, open presents, and do all the stuff that everyone does. My mom comes, too. But my dad is in the Midwest, my brother moved across the Atlantic and I miss my grandparents.
Occasionally on cold December nights, when I’m driving alone in my car, I put on the John and Yoko song and if I happen to pass some distant house burning a fire in the wood stove, for just a moment, I almost believe I’m home again.