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facts & arguments

TARYN GEE FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

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As the holiday season closes in, with both its heightened excitement and heightened anxiety, I find myself thinking of "last times." Not in a maudlin way, but rather in how we never really know, and perhaps we shouldn't, when those last times are actually happening.

It seems our last Christmas may have been the last time we will celebrate the day together as a family, with just our four daughters and ourselves. No extras. Don't get me wrong, my husband and I come from big families with lots of "extras" and they have only gotten bigger and better over the years. But having the six of us, at home together, "just us" as the girls have taken to saying, has become a rare event. Our children are leaving their teens and the nest, and holiday priorities can't help but change, although it seems to have happened all of a sudden.

Christmas planning used to be harried, trying to manage the Santa letters by four little girls, creating the magic of the season while getting practical chores done, such as laundry and groceries (not to mention work). One year even included giving birth to daughter No. 4 just days before Santa arrived. So as December rolled around this year, I paused to think about years past, particularly last year, and how this one was looking so different.

I say "particularly" because, last year, someone (I think it was me) was inspired to suggest that the girls wear their old prom dresses to dinner Christmas night. My thinking was, even if it was "just us" it didn't mean we couldn't make it something special. My husband and I pulled together our own black tie attire to complete the picture. Everyone joined in wholeheartedly, right down to hair and makeup. I only had to cover up with an apron during the gravy-making and I discovered I can still prep broccoli casserole while wearing high heels. The girls poured everyone a fabulous red cocktail of their own creation, turned on the music and got the kitchen dance party started. It took a lot of fancy footwork to carve the turkey and lay out the food on the counters in the midst of all that.

Seeing as it was "just us" around the table, we decided to challenge each other to a game of questions, drawn in part from CBC's Judy Maddren's "22 questions to get a conversation going…" They included such queries as "What's your earliest memory?" "What are you good at?" or "When did you really get into trouble as a child?" And we made some up as well, such as "When should you have gotten into trouble – but Mom and Dad didn't know the whole story?" As the answers came out around the table, memories stirred up even more memories.

When asked to talk about what we were good at, everyone felt a little restrained, not wanting to brag. So we answered for each other. The youngest thought her dad's greatest strength was dealing with BS, particularly at work. Another said she was seeing my mothering in a whole new light, after considering her own ability to be a good parent in the future. We marvelled at another daughter's ease with global issues and where this might lead her. I commented on the diligence of one of the girls to get in a workout, no matter what. We even learned about an ill-fated late-night drive in a friend's small, fast car that ended with a downed light pole and a long, cold walk home in the dark. We teased each other about things like being good at sleeping in and having the longest eyelashes and being great at talking to attractive boys.

We told each other some hard truths as well, as only families can. One cautioned her sister about the risks of trying to be perfect all the time. There was also some discussion about putting people, boyfriends specifically, on a pedestal, and how those relationships can end up in a mess. Someone asked: "Is all this postsecondary effort going to amount to much?" Came the answer: "Only if you can keep faith in yourself and in the process of studying what you love." It was met by much eye-rolling. We talked enough to forgive each other and ourselves, for small things, such as lost clothes and stolen Halloween candy, and bigger transgressions, such as disloyalty and lying. We partied in our finery all evening, told and retold stories, asked questions and listened to the answers. We learned some things about each other, laughed a lot, and cried some too. Looking back, it all seems kind of perfect.

And now, it appears, that may well have been one of those "last times" I've been thinking about – poignant only in retrospect. This year is going to be different, our eldest is on the other side of the world doing graduate work in Taiwan and will be spending Christmas with her classmates, and the second is celebrating with her boyfriend's family in the city where she now lives with him. As for the rest of us, we will still have the two younger ones at home. So we'll do some driving around Southern Ontario to see extended family and friends. Plans are being made to gather at many tables to eat and drink, tell stories and laugh, and maybe shed a few tears as well. It's going to be a great way to spend the holidays. With any luck, we'll create more precious new "last times" to look back on.

Kathy Pearce lives in Orleans, a suburb of Ottawa.