For Christmas break this year, my husband, our two daughters and I visited our families on the West Coast. Whenever I return to my hometown, a suburb south of San Francisco, I’m always struck by how much smaller the playgrounds, houses and streets are in reality compared to my recollection. To my childhood eyes, the park was enormous, featuring a sloping hill dotted with trees and a towering half-shell where summer bands played. Our neighborhood streets were wide, with seemingly limitless space for exploration, hide-and-seek, and lazy afternoons spent rollerblading and biking around the secret paths that connected the cul-de-sacs.
Today, my grown-up brain can’t completely accept that nothing has shrunk, that these are the same streets and corners and patches of grass where I played decades ago. We bring the kids to the local park, and my adult eyes take it all in, as if seeing everything anew: the miniature swings and sand diggers on the playground, the park’s small concert stage, perched humbly before a grassy lawn where we always had picnics. I remember the delicious pop of fried chicken that snapped in my mouth, my parents’ laughter as they drank wine and watched the kids chase each other around the park.
I bring my oldest daughter on a driving tour of my old neighborhood. I don’t recall the houses on my street sitting quite so snugly together, stacked next to each other like mismatched Legos that tumbled out of a toy box. But all of my favorite nooks and crannies are still here, and each reignites feelings from so many years ago. At the corner, there’s the old stop sign I used to approach at full speed on my rollerblades, grasping the pole with both hands and spinning around a few times, the wind rushing through my hair. A smooth, flat rock still sits at the edge of our old front lawn, a familiar waiting spot, a witness to my comings and goings over the years. Across the street is the curb where friends would drop me off after late night movies. We’d linger in the car for a while, giggling, confiding our deepest worries, the houses dark and quiet all around us.
In the background, my mom is there, her presence unmistakable, coloring each memory I have of this place. We cruise down the main road with the kids, passing some of my mom’s favorite eateries, where we often had family dinners out. We visit the mall for some belated holiday shopping, and I remember how my mom loved to try perfume samples at the make-up counter. I’d hold out my wrists and she would gleefully spritz me with a dizzying array of scents. Sometimes, on our way home, my mom would stop for pastries and an espresso at an adorable drive-thru coffee joint — one that I wouldn’t fully appreciate until I became a sleep-deprived new parent many years later.
It’s hard not to imagine how things would be different today if my mom were still alive. There’s no question that she would have been fully involved in my life, and those of her grandchildren. “Remember, I’m going to be around! I’m going to be there for baby Kevin,” she told me over the phone back in 2000, after we’d learned that the cancer had spread to her bones. She was so confident, and I halfway believed her, because I wanted it so much.
When my husband and I got married, my mom was there, looking radiant in a sparkly blue dress, laughing and twirling with us on the dance floor. As the evening wind rustled up the mountainside into the outdoor pavilion, guests shivered and wrapped tablecloths around their shoulders. In pictures, my mom’s hair is short and wispy; she’d colored it blond after her most recent chemotherapy. It was the summer of 2003. Less than a year later, she was gone.
With the passage of time, loss is inevitable. Gone are the carefree attitude and optimism of our youth. We lose touch with friends who were once a daily part of our existence. We suffer as we see our loved ones battle life-changing illnesses, sometimes facing serious health concerns of our own. Our perfect childhood vision of the world as we wish it could be slips, bit by bit, year by year, out of our grasp. We grow up, replacing wonder with realism.
As I enter the second decade of life without my mother, I know that nothing can replace what we’ve lost. But there are still many things that spark joy. Like catching up for coffee with a dear friend, laughing about the merits of false eyelashes and debating wearing outlandish clothing to our 20th high school reunion. Or sharing an impromptu dinner with old friends who are now mothers too, watching as our kids play, shyly at first, then with the abandon of longtime buddies, reunited. A connection that seemed forever lost, restored in an instant like some beautiful, unexpected gift.
I’ll keep looking for those unexpected treasures. And maybe I’ll learn to rekindle some of that childhood optimism and wonder, even though I’m all grown up now.
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