“This could be her last Christmas,” my daughter said, speaking about the dog — one of our dogs — last Christmas, in 2020, the first pandemic Christmas.
Another of our dogs had died earlier in the year, in mid-March before everything shut down. He, the one who died, and she, the one who remained behind, were litter mates, both dumped from a moving truck on the streets of West Memphis, scooped up by a bystander, and adopted by us on Mother’s Day 2010, which now feels an unfathomably long time ago.
She, the remaining dog (and always the calmer, sweeter one), showed signed of age and weariness a few months after her batshit crazy brother died. She tired on our walks, which gradually became shorter and shorter. Her legs gave out underneath her sometimes when she was climbing the stairs. On occasion she lost control of functions that had, up until then, been both regular and appropriate for an inside dog.
Whether or not she’d lost her hearing was a matter of great debate. I will always believe she simply decided not to listen to things that weren’t worth hearing in the first place.
And still, she soldiered on.
“This could be her last Christmas,” my daughter said, again, just a month ago, as she sat on the sofa rubbing the soft, graying muzzle of a dog who’d grown a year older but who was still very much present.
“You said that same thing last year,” I said, and my daughter nodded.
“And some year I’ll be right,” she said.
At the dinner table a few days later, my son said, “This could be the last Christmas break when we’re all together like this. I mean, I’ll always want to come home for Christmas, but next year I might go right back to school or take a trip with friends or something, and after that I’ll be working.”
He paused, realizing what he’d just said, and added, “That is crazy!”
Janus was the Roman god of beginnings, transitions, doorways, portals, passages, and endings. Unlike so many of the mythological gods and demigods, he had no Greek equivalent.
Represented by a single head with two faces, one looking back and the other ahead, Janus presided at the start of both abstract and tangible, sacred and secular.
Janus (January) was added to the Roman calendar in the seventh century B.C. when their formerly 10-month calendar got a lunar make-over. In this calendar, however, January and February marked the end of the calendar year, which began in March.
Around 45 B.C., toward the end of the Roman civil war, Julius Caesar tasked astronomer and mathematician Sosigenes of Alexandria with consolidating and revising the various iterations of the Roman calendar into one official, 12-month, 365-day calendar (with periodic leap year). (For more, here’s the Britannica entry on this topic.) This Julian calendar is the foundation of the 16th century Gregorian calendar still in use throughout most of the known world today, at least for secular/civic calendar-keeping.
In changing the structure of the calendar, Julius Caesar also changed its starting point to January 1, the day the consuls took office. (For more, here’s a recent National Geographic piece about the Julian calendar.)
It is to Caesar, then, that we owe our annual urge to start fresh in the new year, guided by Janus to embark on a new project, new commitment, new version of our former lives. To begin.
But the vigor behind those beginnings most often fades before January ends. (See: Inc. story on Strava’s data behind marking January 19 as “quitter’s day.”)
Since most of the publicity goes to resolutions related to health and fitness, most of the solutions offered in response to falling off the New Year’s resolution wagon are likewise devoted to tips for maintaining the commitments to eat better, exercise more, and get some sleep. Much of the advice goes something like, “start small,” or “begin with just one thing,” with the intent of building habit or discipline gradually, incrementally, over time.
To think of January — Janus — as only a time of beginning, though, is to take a transactional view of something more complex. A beginning is one part of a transition but not its whole. Janus looks both to time past and to time ahead, suggesting that any forward-looking resolution perhaps be connected to retrospective reflection.
I am sorting through photos, in both archival linen boxes and digital computer folders, in response to multiple requests from my daughter’s school for images to use in various events and ceremonies that are part of her senior year of high school: The yearbook, the father-daughter dance, and other similar things.
Among the images is a photo of her with the batshit crazy dog who died in March 2020. We sat with him on the sofa, she and I, during his final weeks. We rigged towels and sheets as harnesses to help him navigate steps and his daily routines. His decline was apparent, and we knew the end was imminent. On the morning of his final day his legs could no longer support his weight, even with assistance, and his breathing was becoming ragged. I called the vet, who’d been on alert for several weeks, to say we were on our way.
I sat in the car, dog in the passenger seat, torn between waking my daughter and letting her sleep, between inviting her to come along (knowing she would say yes, if asked) and allowing her a reprieve from a sorrowful adult responsibility. I chose the latter.
“This time, when it’s her time,” my daughter said, sitting on the sofa, rubbing the graying muzzle of the dog who lived on, “I want to go with you. I’m still mad that you didn’t take me last time and let me say ‘good-bye.'”
I have agreed to this request, barring circumstances that would make it impossible to honor.
An ending is, I know, often a more sacred and momentous occasion than a beginning.
The two together, ending and beginning, give integrity and dimension to a transition, keep it out of the realm of mere transaction. This is the lesson at hand.
“Are we going to have family dinner, like all of us at the table, when his friends are here?” my daughter asks, referring to the days ahead when some of my son’s college friends will be staying at our house for a few days.
“Yes,” I say, but then add, looking to my son, “unless you’ll want to go out.”
“No,” he says. “We’ll probably go out for lunch but be home for dinner — if you’re OK with cooking?”
“We’ve never done this,” my daughter says.
I remind her that we’ve had overnight guests, that we’ve set the kitchen table for 10, crowding around because the kitchen is more comfortable than the more-formal dining room.
“That’s breakfast; that’s different,” she says. “We’ve never had houseguests and eaten dinner at the big table, all together. It will be the first time.”
I am cleaning out, cleaning up, and preparing for company. Sweeping, dusting, scrubbing. I’m finally tackling piled-up stacks that have been easier to avoid than deal with.
In the library, where I write and am set up to work from home, I’ve combed through boxes and crates of photographs and games. Hidden within those stacks I’ve found broken necklaces (“Mom, can you fix this?”) that never got repaired, stuffed animals maimed by dogs, and abandoned knitting projects. Yearbooks, both mine and my children’s. Papers. First drafts. Notes to myself.
Artifacts and anchors. Unopened puzzles and well-loved books. Talismans of guilt and shame, all those “starts” that will never be finished.
This room has been changed, rearranged, and reinvented more times than any other room in the house. It was the playroom when my children were young, the homework room, for a brief time in their elementary school years, my art studio after that, and now returned to its original intent, as a library and writing space.
Having reclaimed the clear, open surface of my table that doubles as a writing/working desk, I am now looking out the window at the melting snow, thinking of all the endings and beginnings, intentional and otherwise, that are ahead, remembering the past that makes them possible.
From the archive: Food | January 2014
(Why this line-up? Because all of these things are easy to prepare when a schedule is hard to predict. The base ingredient for most of these items is shredded chicken, which I still cook, as I did in 2014, in a large batch in the slow cooker.)
This easy dish is basically a Mexican-style lasagne that uses corn tortillas instead of pasta and green salsa instead of Italian red gravy. Can be served with a simple green salad, cut raw vegetables or fresh fruit.
Potato Chive Pancakes | Chicken Hash | Romaine Salad
I make chicken hash differently from any recipe I could find online, and I serve it over either waffles or potato pancakes. If I’m using leftover roast chicken, I make a brown gravy from the pan drippings (do NOT skim the fat – it’s what makes the sauce), thin with broth if needed, and stir in shredded chicken. My mother would sometimes add pimiento peppers for color, but I think they make the hash bitter. Add sauteed onions or fresh bell pepper instead, if you’re looking to add color and texture. If I’m using boiled or poached chicken, I’ll saute some onions in a mix of butter and olive oil, whisk in flour, cook until it’s light brown, then add hot broth until the gravy is the right consistency. Stir in the shredded chicken and season to taste. This recipe for potato chive pancakes from Martha Stewart Everyday Food is a compromise between waffles and hashbrowns. It’s tricky to get the pancake to stay all in one piece, but it tastes just fine even if it falls into pieces.
I season shredded chicken with a mix of onion power, cumin, chili powder, oregano, salt and crushed fresh garlic. I add a bit of chicken stock at the same time as the spices then let it cook until the liquid evaporates. I serve with shredded lettuce, sour cream, cheese, cilantro, red onion, lime and salsa.
Chopped Salad | Grilled Cheese
A chopped salad is easy to prepare several days ahead, or to prepare on the weekend and eat throughout the week. We like carrots, bell peppers (red/yellow/green), cucumber (peeled and seeded), and red onion. My current favorite grilled cheese uses thin slices of bread from a whole grain boule, sharp white cheddar cheese, grainy mustard and Duke’s mayonnaise.
Salmon Burgers | Quick Pickles | Oven Fries
The new recipe we’ll be trying this week is Mark Bittman’s Salmon Burger. I will have to make this while no one is looking, because I’m pretty sure the sight of pulverized raw salmon in the blender will make the entire dinner a no-go for my family. I’ll serve with Alexia oven fries and quick pickles (thickly slice 4-5 small cucumbers and place in a glass bowl or other container along with 1-2 garlic cloves (sliced or whole), some peppercorns and some fresh dill; in a small sauce pan heat 1 c. vinegar, 1/4 c. sugar and 1 tsp. kosher salt until it boils. Pour the hot liquid over the cucumbers, cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.)