35: A Last Gift

35: A Last Gift

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

A Last Gift

He who has gone, so we but cherish his memory, abides with us, more potent, nay, more present than the living man.

~Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

On New Year’s Eve, after almost two decades, we were about to view our wedding video for the first time. My children, Mia and Kieran, huddled beside me under soft blankets on the couch while my husband Michael dimmed the lights. The snow was piled high against the sliding doors on this cold, clear Northern Ontario night, but we were cozy cuddled together in our family room. I pressed “play” on the remote, waiting anxiously for the images to appear on the screen.

Before long we were transported back to December 30, 1995. Lights glowed on the towering Christmas tree beside the altar of St. Matthew’s, our small Finnish Lutheran church. The pews, adorned with our homemade decorations of pine boughs, bells, and red ribbons, were filled with our family and friends, faces so familiar, but so much younger than I remembered. As I listened to the lovely strains of the string quartet playing Pachelbel’s “Canon,” I imagined the scent of red roses filling the air. I scanned the rows, realizing how many of these faces were no longer with us. I smiled to see my father-in-law so proud and healthy-looking, as he escorted my mother-in-law to their pew. Less than five years later he would pass away from cancer.

“There’s Stephanie and Julia. Aw! They’re so little,” Kieran said, as he watched my two nieces walk down the aisle in their tiny ballerina flats. Six-year-old Julia’s big brown eyes shone and her dark ring-lets bounced, while five-year-old Stephanie, blonde and blue-eyed, smiled at her father, my brother John, behind the video camera. The girls wore nearly identical dresses fashioned from the silk of my gown and embellished with fabric roses. Rings of baby’s breath encircled their heads like halos.

A flood of memories engulfed me as I watched myself walk down the aisle to Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

“Look at your hair, Mom.” Mia giggled, as she pointed to my teased tresses. “And those poofy sleeves.”

“Hey, those were in style then,” I said. “Your mummu made me that dress from raw silk we found at a fabric warehouse in Toronto. She created the pattern herself after seeing the Laura Ashley dress I wanted.”

“Look, Dad. You had hair!” Mia laughed. “And check out those big glasses.”

“Yeah, I looked good,” Michael said.

My eyes welled as our parents lit candles for us. I laughed as I saw myself discreetly wiping my nose. Some of my guests commented later on how touching my tears were during the ceremony; they didn’t know the fragrant flowers were to blame.

My brother John had captured every moment. The family photographer, preserving precious moments on film, he was a natural choice for our videographer. He always ensured the lighting was perfect, the angle just right and everyone’s eyes were open. Sometimes his subjects got irritated. “Take the photo, already,” I’d groan, but I knew he’d take a flawless shot.

The day after the wedding ceremony, John’s footage played in the living room of my parents’ bungalow while we opened our wedding gifts. Assuming there would be plenty of time later to see the footage, I paid little attention, and focused instead on family and friends. Afterward, John took the film home to Sault Ste. Marie, promising to convert it from V8 to VHS for us. I left it in his capable hands.

I didn’t see or hear about the videotape for several years. Sometimes, I asked about it during family gatherings, but it seemed to have vanished. I imagined it was in a dusty box somewhere with piles of others John had taken over the years. It will turn up eventually, I thought. But, after John and his family moved into their new home, I resigned myself to the fact that my wedding footage was gone for good.

One day, John arrived on my parents’ doorstep, a small V8 cassette in hand.

“Guess what I found,” he said. His eyes twinkled as he grinned broadly.

“It can’t be.” I turned the tape over in my hands.

“Well, it is, but look, there’s just one problem. It’s completely out-of-date. There is no way to play it now. You’ll have to get it reformatted.”

I frowned. “I’m not sure where to get that done.”

“If you want, I’ll take it back to the Soo (Sault Ste. Marie). I know a guy.”

I hesitated. Finally, I agreed and reluctantly passed back the cassette.

Years passed — again. On January 1, 2004, our families assembled for a celebration at my parents’ house. It was Stephanie’s fourteenth birthday and my father had ploughed a rink on the lake as he had often done when we were children. We skated across the bumpy ice and raced around the curving tracks, the sun bouncing off the bright white snow. Camera in hand, John took several shots of our children skating together. Before the pale yellow sun settled in the late afternoon sky, he passed it to me. In a rare reversal, I was the one behind the camera capturing a special moment.

The four stood closely together, John’s arms embracing his wife, Judith, and their children, Stephanie and Andrew. A thin blanket of snow stretched across the lake to the hills in the distance and a last show of light shone in the purpling sky. John beamed at the camera in complete peace and happiness. As I took the picture, I couldn’t help but shudder. For just an instant, a flashbulb illuminated the sky. I didn’t mention the strange sensation as I passed the camera back to my brother.

Two months later John was skiing on Red Lake when he was struck by a snowmobile, and killed instantly. The photograph was the last one taken of John with his family.

• • •

A few years later, I received a package in the mail from my sister-in-law. I ripped open the bubble wrap to find a small V8 cassette with faint pencil markings. My wedding video!

It sat on my kitchen table for many days before I finally placed it in a drawer. Once in a while, I would notice it as I rummaged for a pen or paper, a twinge of guilt passing through me. There was always something more important to do, a child needing my attention, chores to be done. I’d waited this long, I thought. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to unleash the memories I knew it contained. Finally, I found a way to get it converted to DVD and gave it to my husband Michael as an anniversary gift.

Now, as we watched the film together, I realized it was eighteen years since my wedding and nearly ten years since my brother’s tragic passing. When it came to a close, I wiped away the tears and hugged my children closer, thankful to share these precious moments with them, and even more grateful to see beloved faces from long ago.

When the screen turned to blue, I was about to press “stop” on the remote. But muffled voices caught my attention and then suddenly more images appeared on the screen. There was more footage. As we watched, little Stephanie twirled in her flowing nightdress with one of her cousins. I could hear John’s voice chatting with the adults. Before long, everyone was wishing one another a “Happy New Year!” Then, with the camera safely on the tripod, John stepped briefly from behind and into the shot. There he was again, young and happy, full of life, capturing memories on film. I smiled through my tears at this unexpected, and absolutely perfect last gift.

~Liisa Kovala

Sudbury, Ontario

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