I have seen a lot of first day of school pictures this week. I have the hallway down to my own children’s bedroom lined with them. Other than a photograph of my daughter in a construction paper mortar board at a silly affair called “kindergarten graduation”, I have nothing when it comes to last day of school photos. There is not much new at the end of the school year; waistbands are snugger, shirts have faded, one of the zippers on the backpack with their favorite character on it won’t budge. For that matter, their favorite character has even changed.
People seem to remember their firsts, take that however you choose. Your first bike, your first kiss, your first apartment, your first love, your first car, your first job. I bet the mention of most of those retrieved some memory from your mental file cabinet of firsts. They are organized and even if they are old memories, there is a particular clarity to them still. I think of lasts as getting the soggy moving box that is still in the garage the next time you move. The memory is probably in there, though some may have been lost or simply never collected at all.
The difference between firsts and lasts is that you know a first because it is exciting, different, new and even sometimes scary. You can picture riding your bike the first time without training wheels, with a parent running alongside or a friend encouraging you. The last time you rode your bike was either yesterday or twenty years ago, either way, it simply does not warrant the attention that the first time did. I vividly remember the first time I consumed Indian cuisine. I was in Chicago, the summer after my sophomore year in college. I had gone to see the Vatican Art Show with my aunt and two cousins. It was so spicy hot that I remember breaking a sweat but still wanting more. I can’t tell you the last time I ate Indian food, I assume I will again some day but future experiences will never have the allure of that first time.
When my daughter walked off the LaCrosse field her sophomore year in high school, neither she nor I realized that would be her final game. Her junior and senior year she opted to put shot for the track team, where efforts were more independent but the camaraderie of teammates was more evident. Unlike some dramatic lasts, like losing at state senior year, this finale was one observed in hindsight with a shrug.
That is how it was with my son in dance. He began dance lessens in the fourth grade; jazz and tap consistently, ballet sporadically and Hip Hop for one year. While he enjoyed the dancing, he equally liked the social aspect, the performances and once a year overnight lock-in at the studio where he allowed the girls to make him over. It was in ninth grade with a new commitment to show choir, both as a member and serving on the crew for other choirs that his participation in recitals ended. No Holiday Show, no Spring Recital. After years of photos and costumes, programs and giant all-studio finales it was over. I hadn’t realized his last performance was his last until nearly a year later. His senior year, he and I went to the last recital of many of his former studio classmates. Graceful young women whose final performance was an emotional ending to a culmination of a dozen years or more of; leotards, sequins, quick costume changes and seeing other dancers on a daily basis. It was during that event that I got to watch my son on stage at a dance recital, one last time. At some point in the show, a portion of the dancers come out on stage and young audience members are invited to come up and do the Hokey Pokey. There was all six foot 2 inches of Eddie, raucously putting his back side in and his back side out and shaking it all about with classmate Molly who is currently a dance major in Utah. A last I will remember.
When I gave birth to Eddie, before they even had cleaned him up and handed him to me I exclaimed “I’m doing that again.” but nearly twenty years later and looking back, that was the last time I was going to be in a delivery room as a patient. I don’t regret not having more children but in that adrenaline rush after bringing a life into the world I was certain I would do it again. There are a lot of lasts with children that you do not realize until well after they have passed. Things that were so much a part of the daily routine when your kids are young you almost wish them away. You don’t know the last time your kids are going to take a bath together as it is happening, someday you just realize that it hasn’t happened in awhile and you know it won’t be happening again. When was the last bedtime story? When was the last time your kid climbed into bed late at night after a bad dream? When was the last time you cut meat for your child? How recently have you caught one of them midair jumping off a dock? They were just simple acts, the minutia of life, big moments that pass without acknowledgement because perhaps the reality might be too much to take in all at once.
I may be unique in that despite not being bedside with my parents when they passed, I recall my last exchange with both of them. Neither was significant at the time and I certainly was not aware in those moments that they were the last time I would hear their voices or have eye contact with them. With my father, I was on the porch of the house I had been raised in, he was just inside the door. I was a newlywed and had come to town to bring him home from a brief hospital stay. I was in a hurry, because his release had been delayed (hinging on oxygen being delivered to the house) and I needed to travel 90 minutes to get my husband from work. I got my dad into the house and told him I’d be back on Monday to visit. His final words to me were “If you behave yourself, I’ll take you out to lunch.” It was not to be, that Sunday was Father’s Day and he died in the living room after taking my mother out to breakfast.
My mother and I had our last meal out at Dayton’s at Southdale mall. It was no longer called Dayton’s but that is what it had been to us for years. I had brought her to select outfits for her class party the following Friday and her West High class of ’54 Reunion the next Saturday. After successful shopping we had lunch and I drove her home in my minivan. I let her out and explained that rather than take her to get shoes the next week, I would simply purchase several pairs and bring them to her to choose from, so as to reserve her energy for the festivities. Toddling up the front walk with a large shopping bag in one hand she glanced back and with her other hand gestured with her thumb and forefinger about an inch apart “I like a little patent leather.” She died in her sleep three days later. Years later for his Junior Prom, instead of traditional dress shoes, Eddie bought a pair of black Sperry’s…with a little patent leather.
I took the kids to Macy’s (former Dayton’s) for lunch the week before returning to college. Even though their grandma has been gone a decade, it’s a place where they have fond memories of her; where Betsy began her love of tea and we all enjoy the popovers. I hope it was not for the last time. One never knows.
Lasts truly are not less significant than firsts, they are often just harder to identify.