Jill Talbot’s column, The Last Year, traces in real time the moments before her daughter leaves for college. The column ran every Friday in November, January, and March. It returns for a final month this August, as Jill and Indie take one final road trip together to Indie’s campus.
© Matthew Lee High
Summer slips away, like so much else this year. It’s late August, midafternoon, and I’m sitting on a porch in upstate New York. This is the final week my daughter, Indie, and I have together on our cross-country trip to her new college. These days are the last ones before we say goodbye at her dorm, before we begin to unfold the pages of our separate lives.
Not long before we left Texas two weeks ago, I asked Indie if she’d like to take me on a tour of her favorite places in high school. She grabbed her keys and drove us to a doughnut store, to the turn she took so many times on Crescent Street, past her school parking space under a tree, to the restaurant where she had worked for over a year, to Sonic Drive-In, space 23, the one she and her best friend pulled into every time, and to the band practice field, telling me stories the whole way. At the Dairy Queen on University, she told me it had the slowest drive-through in town, but the best mint Oreo Blizzards.
At the final custody hearing in Boulder in 2003 (Indie was sixteen months old), the judge ordered the only visitation Indie’s father requested (five days every summer). He left the courtroom without a word. My parents had flown in from Texas, and together we watched him walk down the hallway and step into an elevator. As the doors closed, my father said, “Well, you’ll never see him again.” He was right.
I’ve long been fascinated with a photo of an abandoned post office in the middle of the Mojave. The blue POST on the small building, the faded OFFICE. The two windows with blinds sun-stained to teal. The wooden door with 90820 painted in red above it. Who was the last person to pull that door closed, to check the lock and make sure?
In college I had an American-literature professor who liked to pose the question, What happens after the last page? I’d raise my hand to answer, my mind running wild at the idea of what happens after an ending.
When Indie was little and it was time to leave—a friend’s house or a playground—I’d tell her, If you don’t leave now, you can’t come back. I never had to tell her twice. The first time, she understood, was the last time.
Door Wide Open: A Beat Affair in Letters, 1957–1958 includes the correspondence between Jack Kerouac and Joyce Johnson that started the year On the Road was published. Johnson offers commentary throughout, beginning with the first sentence: “The night of our blind date in January 1957, Jack couldn’t even afford to buy me a cup of coffee—his last twenty had vanished earlier that day when he’d bought a pack of cigarettes and received change for a five, so I treated him to a hot dog and baked beans at Howard Johnson’s.” I tell my students they can often find an entire work in its opening line, and sometimes even the ending.
Last October, Indie and I went to the State Fair of Texas on the last day. We followed the route my father had taken us on every year—Fletcher’s Corn Dogs, the automobile building, the Midway for Skee-Ball, the food building for a bag of malt balls, a ride through the haunted house with the cars that swoop down a hill (my father, in his ball cap, always whooped on the way down). We did everything he had loved to do, along with giving our leftover game tickets to a family with small children on our way out.
This fall, there will be no fair.
As we’ve been driving across the country, we’ve seen CLASS OF 2020 signs on barns and marquees, once on a large rock in the Adirondacks. This year has given us all unexpected conclusions.
How many lasts came and went without our knowing? And how many lasts slipped away?
We’re quarantining at an Airbnb, our final stop before the four-hour drive to Indie’s campus. There’s a nice breeze on the porch today. A few houses down, a man mows his lawn.
Every night here, we’ve been watching a movie we loved when Indie was little (last night, Fantastic Mr. Fox). When the movie’s over, I come out here and listen to Jackson Browne. I’ve always loved the last lines of “These Days”: “Don’t confront me with my failures / I had not forgotten them.”
It turns out the last thing I bought my mother was a vanilla bean Frappuccino. She had never had one, and when she took a sip, she looked over at the nurse with joy: “It tastes like snow ice cream!”
On September 29, Indie and I sat high in the stands behind home plate at the final Texas Rangers game in Globe Life Park. I have a picture of Indie, about two years old, standing at the home plate gate in a pink shirt, jean shorts, and a blue Rangers cap. My mother took the photo. My father’s hand reaches for Indie’s in the frame. Last September, when Indie and I left the stadium, I showed her where the picture had been taken.
Every time I’ve moved, I’ve pretended the last time I see people is not that at all.
See you tomorrow.
See you soon.
I can’t bear to say goodbye.
This isn’t the last essay in this series, but it’s the last one I’ll write while Indie’s in the next room.
When her senior year began, I decided to keep fresh flowers on her nightstand. I enjoyed choosing different types, different colors, surprising her every week or so with a fresh vase. I thought of the flowers as celebration, but when everything shut down, they felt more like an apology, or an offering of grace. I let her pick out the last ones. They were cream roses, their petals like stationery.
I never leave behind the last sip when I drink wine in a restaurant. Yesterday, Indie told me she’ll miss sitting across from me in a booth, talking while I finish my wine.
“Everything that happens is the last time it happens.” —Sarah Manguso
I’ll always carry the look on Indie’s face when she turned to take one last look at our apartment.
If I were home, I’d read the final underlines I’ve made in my favorite books.
Earlier, the scent of rain was sudden. I looked up to see clouds fold away the last bit of sun like an envelope. The breeze cooled. And then a falling so quiet I had to stare at the trees to see the drops.
I threw open the screen door and called out to Indie. She ran outside, and we stood on the steps watching a rain that reminded me of the beaded curtains we once had in a kitchen doorframe, several homes and years ago.
I already know the last thing I’m going to say to her.
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