If you knew that the world would end tomorrow, what would you do today? What memory would you want to hold onto for all eternity?
The Memory She Wants Most
the memory she most wants is of that last day.
she gathers to her all the people she loves and has loved. something about the finality of the day makes the time stretch and expand. they gather together in the living room of the old house, with the mismatched couches, the high walls, and the fireplace. the sun streams in as they all wander in, in ones and threes, and they find places to snuggle down with the knit comforter her sister gave her for christmas one year, or holding the teddy bear he has embarrassedly kept since first grade. she makes coffee for her parents, tea for herself and a few others, and sets out pastries. perhaps it's the irish side of the family coming out; they are all in a muted but festive mood. one reaches over to squeeze another's hand; everyone is hugged and kissed, both cheeks, when they come in and maneuver for a place in the circle. occasionally, she reaches over to affectionately pat her sweetheart. they all talk about the drive, and how hard it was to find parking, and the fact that someone's daughter is making all kinds of friends in first grade, and how well aunt e___ looks. her sister gets up to pass the pastries around, and her nephew offers to refill cups after brewing another pot of coffee. uncle j___, who rarely gets to see everyone, finally has a chance to brag about his work with the Habitat project he's been leading. some of the nieces and nephews have been volunteering with him, and they glow when he singles them out for praise.
the sun warms the room up, and someone gets up to struggle with the windows; the windows argue squeakily, and finally relent. the soft, mild breezes remind someone of the summer cottage, and everyone starts sharing favorite stories of bridge parties late at night, jumping off the dock to swim, all night gossip sessions under the blankets with a flashlight (trying not to let the parents hear all the giggling), and biking down to the country store for penny candy. whatever happened to that place, someone muses. it's still there, i think, someone else offers, i just drove by it the other day. still looks just the same. not the same, tho. all the neighbors have moved away. oh, but i just heard from j__ the other day, pipes up auntie e___. he's as feisty as ever. says hi to all of you.
she wanders outside to have a smoke, even at this date trying to be discreet about her habits in front of her parents. her best friend comes out to sit on the front steps with her. they talk about how long they have known each other, and how well they understand each other. every so often, they try to do the math, and end up calculating it from certain milestones. we were working together at.... and then you started seeing... yes, but then that... well, yes, but we were still friends! they take a quiet inventory of all the events they have seen each other thru. marriages, divorces, job changes, depression, children, drunken nights, trips to the emergency rooms, buying houses and apartments, moving each other more times than they can count, and always painting the new place. they know each other so well now that they can finish each other's sentences, sometimes even start them for each other. there have been disagreements and fights, but under it all (or above it all), they have found each other, and worked hard at making the friendship work. that bond shines for her that day, like a garnet ring around the both of them. they look into each others eyes, and the love that shines there does not need to be spoken. they hug each other, then get up to rejoin the others.
someone (one of the nieces, she thinks, but maybe aunt k___) says that it's time for lunch. is there anything in the larder? of course. one of the things she loves most is baking for others, and feeding them well. she corrals a few of the other mother hens to help her set up a buffet in the dining room. the old, medieval-looking trestle table is covered in her grandmother's linen, with a bowl of fresh flowers in the middle. soon, the flowers are hidden by platters and bowls of food. sandwiches, a tureen of soup, any number of things to nibble on, and as always, a bowl of potato chips, toasty brown, especially for her father. she thinks about how, as children, they always tried to sneak her father's chips for lunch. it never worked. she laughs now, wondering how the perfectly toasted chip ever seemed so important.
everyone mills around the table to fill up their plates; some go back to the living room to eat, but a few wander out into the back yard, and she decides to join them. the flowers are still blooming, and the combination of sun, cardinal vines, and lunch agrees with them. a few of the children have raced thru lunch, and have now set up a game of crouquet on the far side of the lawn. do you remember l__, from our grade school cafeteria, she asks her brother? you mean the one who always played with his keys? he had them on a belt clip, but the chain pulled out like a tape measure. yes, yes, she says, excitedly, and he always had a little song to whistle when he did that! she's amazed that he remembers that; he was only eight when they moved away from there. and how about the old supermarket? mom always pointed out the first apartment she had with dad - it was right next to the parking lot there. he doesn't remember that, but tells her his stories about walking over to the pond by the post office to skate. they both remember being scared to skate down to the end of the pond, by the road, because there was a little sluice by the bridge to connect to the other pond, or the other part of the pond on the far side of the road. except for the winter there was a blizzard, the ice was always thinner there, and they were both afraid of falling thru and sliding into the other pond. they talk about ice, and snow, in the luxury of a sunny afternoon. and the dog down the street - the one who tried to get the cookies from us? we were delivering christmas cookies to the neighbors, and the datschund seemed like the most ferocious animal we'd ever met. but we got the cookies there, she says. yeah, he says, just like the post office. they both grin at each other.
her sister pokes her head out the back door, and invites them all to come in for dessert. all the old favorites have been put out on the dining room table, lunch having been mysteriously cleaned up while she was reminiscing in the garden. c___'s snickerdoodles, sugar cookies especially thin and lightly browned, rice krispie treats, fig newtons, blueberry pie, italian toronne - everyone has made their specialty, and there is something for everyone to salivate over. a few of the older relatives have gone off to indulge in naps. the others have dessert, and devolve into smaller groups, chatting quietly about summer camp, and school counselors, what they thought they would do when they went to college, how life has taken odd but appreciated tangents. she looks over the groups, having finished off the last sticky remnants of her rice krispie treat. the cats come over to say a desultory hello, and get pets. she gets up, and looks for her best friend and her sweetie.
the two of them are in the library, sitting by the window, talking in low tones. she hesitates to interrupt them, but they both look up and wave her over. she asks if they want to come with her while she walks the dog. they agree; he goes to find the leash, and her friend goes to find the dog. they round up everything, promise the dog a (last) walk, and head out. as they walk along the familiar roads, down to the river, the three of them fall into their regular pattern of walking. the one with the dog is a step ahead, the others a bit behind, but always, always, the three of them are talking. they run thru stories they share, some shared by two, some by three, but all the stories are familiar to the group from numerous retellings. it almost feels to her as if she has been at each of these places they discuss; they are as comfortable as her favorite sweatshirt.
the dog begs to be let off her leash; it's as if she knows it's the last time she will get to frolic in the sun. they indulge her, and kneeling down, her friend lets the dog off, patting her to encourage her towards the river. the dog, tongue hanging out, gallops down to the water, looking back to check on the people she's with. the dog finds a small space in the reeds, and yapping joyfully, dips her front paws in the water. she comes running back, jumping up on her people, leaving crazy dog paw marks all over them. she runs back down to the water, and back to the people, repeating the scene over and over again. sweetie finds a stick, and starts playing fetch with the dog. she sits down on a bench with her best friend, watching the scene, one arm draped over her friend. the two of them say nothing, just soaking in the panorama, loving the casualness and loving how happy the dog is. nothing need be said; the moment is perfect.
finally, the dog tires of the game, and watching the sunset over the water, the four of them head back to the house. it's a perfect sunset, with a small scud of clouds on the horizon. oranges, purples, and blues play themselves out on the horizon. they look back over it wistfully as they trudge back the sidestreets, looking for solace among family and friends. they need the finality of it to be balanced, to be countered with games and stories. as they round the corner by the house, a tantalizing waft of cedar smoke rings around them. they hadn't realized it was starting to cool off, and the promise of a sparking fire hurries them back. as her sweetheart and her friend walk in, shrugging off coats and calling out to friends, she hangs back a little, watching thru the windows as her cousin leans over to clear something off the table, and aunt j___ tosses her head back, laughing at something one of the children has told her. the warm glow of candles and fire and the darkening blue night sky remind her of a Parrish painting, and she wants to dive into it.
inside, someone had loaded up the stereo with jazz albums, and has a soundtrack going for the evening. she remembers learning to love jazz, growing up hearing it and not understanding it, only later coming to appreciate her father's music. someone else (probably her best friend) has gotten out pens, pencils and small pads of paper, and is marshalling together a game of Fictionary. there is plenty of silliness, and the sheer inventiveness of her family amazes her. j___ has a bent for highly technical definitions that are always just a little off; her dad often suprises with far more risque entries than one would suppose him possible of. do you remember the marathon Trivial Pursuit sessions, she asks her sister. sure; and that night that s___ and i filled up our pie with wedges when noone was looking? oh god, we all nearly died laughing. monopoly was never as fun; it took too much work to keep track of all that money. hmph, her sister says, and we're banker's children, too.
my stomach is rumbling, cries uncle w___, who has been playing cribbage in the other room. she laughs, and gets up to put dinner together. she invites the children in to help her, and puts them all to work peeling and scrubbing, after letting them race the lobsters across the kitchen floor. her mother comes in and, seeing the race, says she remembers letting you kids do the same thing at your grandparents' house. mmm, and we used the rings on the braided rugs to measure the finish line. we gave them names and everything, and were horrified when we found out our new pets were going to be dinner, she says with a grin. well, her mother says, it's clear you've gotten over the horror, and gives her a hug. aunt k___ comes in and offers to put together the salad, and uncle w___ comes to check on the roast. soon the kitchen is filled with mouth watering aromas, and everyone wanders in and out, helping here, tasting there, taking dishes out to the table.
she puts the last touches on a platter of tomatoes and basil, and goes out to join the others. people are perched on chairs, or settled on the stairs, or sprawled out by the fire, quite content to munch away on this last feast. it's a good thing we didn't decide to grill, someone offers. yeah, too many grill meisters present - we'd never get to eat as you argued over the right technique, the resident smarty pipes up, and they all laugh. she looks around at her family and friends, well fed and companionable, and is pleased. as they mop up the last bits of juice with their bread, she announces that she's had enough of washing dishes. tonight, they will be Cossacks. heads turn, and they look back at each other, and then suddenly there's a procession up the stairs to the front windows. they surely look the fools, tossing open windows and launching the plates out onto the street, but no one much cares. a little contest arises, as a few of the cousins try to land their plates on the neighbor's roof.
when the dishes are done, they shake hands and pat each other on the back in satisfaction. i hope we saved a few for dessert, says one of the nephews. of course, she says primly, we're a very proper family, and flounces down the stairs giggling. dessert is out, and a few cordial glasses make their way around. they all meander into the living room once again, to settle down in the firelight, and for one last conversation. one of the things i loved best, she says, was having my father read to me after dinner. even when i was old enough to read for myself, it was bliss to curl up on the sofa and let him paint the story for me. heads nod; love of books is a family-wide trait. or how about telling stories around the campfire at summer camp? well, it was fine until the night the counselor forgot the flashlight, and we all walked back thru the poison ivy. oh, balderdash - that didn't change the stories! no, but it was rather uncomfortable for a few days after that. the best stories were the ones i read at night, under the blankets, with a flashlight. something about forbidden fruit always made it a bit sweeter.
old stories now make their way around. do you remember t___'s wedding? on that sunny summer afternoon - what a gift the weather was. or the day dad brought d___ back from the hospital? so tiny - i was afraid to hold her. or the christmas we had a few days late? well, we all had the flu, and dad had the car accident on christmas eve. that was the first time, she says, i realized that the day itself didn't matter. you could make it christmas any time, as long as you had family and friends around you. j___ starts singing, a little off-key, the first verse of Adeste Fideles. then someone leads Good King Wenceslas; they sing all of their favorite carols, as many as they can remember the words to.
her sister gets up to pile a few more logs on the fire, and as she does, the clock in the hall chimes the time. they realize how late it is, and the room goes quiet. then one of the nieces breaks the silence by marching around the room, climbing up on each lap, and planting a loud, sloppy kiss on each face, announcing as she does that she loves them. eyes glisten a bit, and quietly, they turn to each other, and say those words too often left unsaid. i love you, with all my heart. thank you for being part of my life. you've been more than a sister, you've been my friend. thank you. i love you.
no one seems to want to leave, as they all find a blanket, a hand to hold, a partner to snuggle up with, a comfortable pillow. the chatter subsides as one by one people nod off to sleep, in the warmth of the fire. she curls up with her sweetheart; her parents are contentedly nestled on the sofa, and she sees them as a couple in love, not just as her parents. as she drifts off to sleep one last time, she looks around at this circle of love and caring, at the faces of those who have been there for her, and those she has believed in, and is at last content.