The other day my granddaughter, Randi, informed me that she was no longer “into princesses” and that future gifts should avoid any princess-themed material and instead, focus on any of a whole series of new interests that had captured her eight-year-old imagination.

The rational side of me realized that this was just a natural part of growing up and a perfectly healthy part of her development. I smiled and told her I got the message. No princess-themed gifts—ever again.

Still, it made me a little sad and got me thinking.

I recalled her vast collection of princess dolls, complete with the outfits and accessories, including the princess castles that were critical to successful princess play. I recalled how I’d bought her a series of princess play dresses so she could emulate her favourite princess of the day in flights of imagination that would occupy her for hours.

I would often sit with her until my legs cramped, sometimes wearing a plastic tiara that made her laugh. I became a part of those fantastic adventures and employed my best falsetto to give voice to a princess or two. Randi would respond in kind with a character of her own and we’d laugh—a lot.

It was fun.

Strange, then, that when I tried to recall the last time we’d played that game, I couldn’t.

It left me wondering how many other “last times” I had missed, never realizing that something so precious was being experienced for the very last time, and would be lost forever without my even realizing the loss.

I’ve tried to think of other moments like that.

When was the last time I lifted Randi into the seat of a baby-swing and watched her grin as I gave her that first push? She swings like a pro now and doesn’t need my help.

When was the last time I watched as she jumped into a puddle with both feet, laughing as the splash got my shoes wet?

Life as a parent or grandparent is full of those special moments and there’s a certain bittersweet element to the memories when we realize that we sailed on from those waters without ever realizing they were passing away forever.

I suppose it comes down to being too darn busy with the minutia of life to honestly cherish those things that are truly important. We all do it, and shouldn’t feel too bad about it, I suppose.

And, I realize that these aren’t new thoughts. Joni Mitchell was singing about how we don’t know what we got ’til it’s gone when I still had a full head of hair and my own children were still more than a decade away from being born.

It’s funny that, as a young man, I only peripherally got the message and I wish I had paid more attention.

A truth I’ve learned in the four decades since Big Yellow Taxi hit the charts, is that we don’t tend to appreciate what we have until we look back and realize how wonderful those little moments of life are. Or were. We never consider, as we do something we love, that we may never do that particular thing again.

But then, just as I was in danger of getting truly depressed about the ephemeral nature of raising children, Randi came up to me with a favourite book I hadn’t seen for a long time. It was a classic hard cover version of The Night Before Christmas. It’s a book I’ve read aloud to her since she was two years old, and it’s became a bit of a tradition that every December I read that book to her, often adding asides about the illustrations. Sometimes she recites the words with me, and I do my best Santa imitation when the jolly elf is described.

“Can we read this Grandpa?” she asked.

I’d been watching the news, but looked at her smiling face for only a moment before I turned off the TV and patted the couch, inviting her to climb up beside me.
We read. And we laughed. Then we read it again.

Later, I realized that, at least for that moment, I had savoured the experience and that, if it was the last time we ever read that book, it would be okay. At least I’d realized how precious the time was and would never forget the gift she’d given me that night.

Tim Collins is a writer and freelance journalist living and working in Victoria.