It was the best year ever.
This was before my colossal bet with my older brother Charley.
Before everything started unraveling.
Still, it wasn’t as if our bet had anything to do with what occurred subsequently.
Rather, as a result of our bet and what happened earlier, I realized things would never be the same.
Let me explain.
Our first weekend with the new skis Santa brought us for Christmas was a fun-filled experience of skiing lessons and learning to keep from falling. Santa had given us a family pass to a ski resort thirty minutes away from our farm, and now we could ski anytime we wanted. Hidden Valley, located on the other side of Somerset, was perfect for families like ours, modern families in the early 1960s who came into the Allegheny Mountains from the suburbs of Pittsburgh to enjoy the new-found winter sport of skiing.
That Saturday after ski school, it wasn’t long before my oldest sister Holly and my brother Charley went off to the intermediate slopes, like everyone else in the class. But Allison and I promised Mother we would stay on the beginner slope.
We couldn’t understand why. Certainly we could ski as well as Charley and Holly.
My older brother’s idea of skiing was to go to the top of the mountain, turn his skis downward and, with a violent push forward, propel himself down the slope as fast as he could fly. Charley’s concept was based solely on speed and nothing thrilled him more than racing down the mountainside, like he was Mario Andretti and this was a steeply tilted, Indianapolis 500 racetrack.
“Skiing isn’t so hard,” he told me later that week.
My sister Allison, who was only a year-and-a-half older than me, liked the “snow plow” technique we learned from our lessons and practiced it over and over on the beginner slope, as well as on the flat areas near the rope tow and at the lodge. When Allison wasn’t “plowing” away, she was sitting on the back of her skis “sledding” down the hill. But, rather than go straight to the bottom, she would cut back and forth across the slope, like a gopher, allowing the skis to deposit her into the thin cover of trees on either side. To stop, she would plop down in the snow, then turn her skis around and shove herself back across the slope.
Allison said skiing was a lot of work.
I often followed Allison’s lead, but hated to sit down in the snow to turn my skis.
It wasn’t long before we both learned to turn by watching other skiers sashay down the slope. Though we weren’t as pretty in our technique, slowly we figured out how to turn without falling. As our skills improved, we begged Mother, who had been watching us in the lodge, to let us ski on more advanced slopes.
That first Saturday, Mother insisted Allison and I had to stay where we were and let the difficult slopes for older skiers with more experience. However, by the second weekend, we were thoroughly tired of the same gradual hill.
Besides, Charley teased us all week long, saying we were a bunch of babies for having to stay on the beginner slope.
Mother told Charley to quit it, but Charley continued to tease us, especially me when we were alone in our bedroom.
Charley said, he could ski around me with his eyes closed.
“Cannot,” I said.
“Can too,” he said. “You’re just a little baby who doesn’t know the first thing about skiing.”
“Are to!” he responded. “A little baby not even allowed on the adult slopes.”
After I complained enough times to Mother, she finally relented and said Allison and I could ski on the intermediate slopes starting that next Saturday. She said she was proud of us for practicing all day on the beginner slope, and, now that we knew what we were doing, she would allow us to ski with Charley and Holly.
Charley said he didn’t care; I was still a baby and he would prove it.
By the time Mother drove us to the resort that second weekend, Charley and I had a huge bet between us on which one of us was the better skier. The winner, Charley said, would give the other ten dollars. I only had the five dollars Grandmother sent to each of us every year for Christmas. If I lost, it dawned on me, not only would I lose Grandmother’s money from this year but from next year too!
What if she died? I would be in his debt forever!
Charley decided the only way to determine who was the better skier was to see who was faster. This was not the bet I wanted to make. I already knew Charley was faster – after all, Charley was nearly a teenager and three years older than me, how could he not be faster? Besides, even if he wasn’t faster (and he was, he definitely was – I watched him repeatedly race down the slopes the previous weekend), there was no way, given his willingness to beat me up every weekend, I could beat him in a race and live to tell about it.
No, I made the bet simply to show Charley I wasn’t a baby. I may have been his puny little brother, but I could ski straight down a hill too.
Mother didn’t know of our bet and suddenly informed us, as we were getting out of the station wagon in the Hidden Valley parking lot, she wouldn’t be watching us that afternoon after all. She had changed her mind that morning and was going to run errands in Somerset, she said, while we were busy skiing. She would be back later to pick us up.
My heart sank. Oh no!
“I’ll give Holly money for hot chocolate and pizza if you get cold or hungry,” she added, like it would make a difference for her not being there.
“Please stay!” I pleaded. Allison did too.
“I watched you all last Saturday,” Mother responded, “but today, I have other things I need to do. Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon.”
I could see Charley’s growing smile: an afternoon of racing Allison and me over and over without getting in trouble with Mother.
“Charley, do you think you can spend some time skiing with your sister and little brother?” Mother asked, as we took our skis over to the staging area near the lodge.
“Sure,” Charley said. “I’ll ski with little baby Jon-Jon and Allison too.”
Allison and I looked each other and right away we knew we were in for it. Why wasn’t Mother telling Charley not to pick on us? Didn’t she see how mean he would be? Why wasn’t she threatening him to behave?
Earlier that morning, when Charley was sitting on top of me back in our bedroom, he told me exactly how our bet would take place. As soon as we arrived at Hidden Valley, Charley said, we would put on our skis and, since I now could ski on the intermediate slopes, we would go directly to the ski lift. Though I had never been on a chair lift before nor high up on the mountainside, I would go out onto the slope with him and we would see, right then and there, who was the baby and which one of us was the better skier. We would race each other side-by-side down the slope for the first run of the day.
Now with Mother leaving, my sense of dread was overwhelming.
I said goodbye to her like it was the last time I would ever see her alive.
She stood staring at us as we headed for the chair lift: all of us, Holly, Charley, Allison, and me. Holly got on first, along with another skier, and was lifted high into the air. Allison and I followed and were thrilled with the ride up the mountainside. This was scary, but so exciting too! Charley followed in the chair behind us, yelling at us that we were about to be “creamed!”
I wondered what Mother thought and looked back to see her near the lodge staring at us. I was sure Mother thought Allison and I would go to the rope tow and ski down the beginner slope before attempting an intermediate hill. I bet Mother was proud that we were much better skiers than that!
Allison and I were not babies at all.
Besides, Mother didn’t know about our bet and Charley was too much of a hotrod to care about any of us practicing the fundamentals of skiing on our second weekend at Hidden Valley.
Halfway up the mountain, Holly got off at the intermediate station, followed by Allison and me, with Charley soon joining us. I was shaking from the cold and the wind slicing through my gloves and jacket.
What was I doing here?
Holly and Charley led Allison and me through the woods to the edge of the slope. We stared down at the long steep drop below us, then up at the skiers coming down the near vertical hill from the top of the mountain.
I thought I was going to die.
This was much more difficult than I remembered from watching the previous weekend. The lodge was farther away – all the way down the slope – than I ever imagined. The woods on either side seemed like a solid, impenetrable mass. There was nowhere to stop, I realized, without smashing into a thick, tangled forest of trees and vegetation.
“Watch me,” Holly said, taking off down the slope, sashaying left and right to slow her descent. She looked like she was a born skier who had been doing this forever. Allison followed Holly like a little duckling, using her proven “snow plow” technique, moving a ton of snow with her as she slowly plowed her way to the bottom.
“Come on, Jon-Jon, you little baby,” Charley said. “Now, it’s time to see who is scared and who is faster.”
Charley pushed his skis out onto the slope, and I followed with a huge sigh, slowly, reluctantly, moving my skis forward with my bright red bamboo poles.
I thought of Allison who thought I was crazy for getting into a bet with Charley!
But Allison didn’t understand: Charley tormented me all the time, and now, once and for all, I could prove to him that I was not what he said.
“Ready, you little baby?” Charley asked as he turned his ski downward toward the lodge.
I turned my skis downward too.
“Get set…you puny punk…” Charley moved his poles forward to get a great push.
Carefully, I placed my poles forward too, but, in truth, instead of hearing him or focusing on the hillside, I was lost in the vision of the tiny lodge far below us.
“Go! Go! Go!” Charley shouted and shoved his skis forward.
Just like that, he took off like a bullet, bent over on his skis, charging down the hill like a crazy kamikaze.
Closing my eyes, I pushed off too and quickly gained speed, racing down the hill in pursuit of my older brother.
Within seconds I was skiing faster than I ever had, certainly faster than possible on the beginner slope. I was standing upright with my hands grasping the red poles, my arms flailing through the air! I could barely control my skis as the wind pushed against me, blinding me, whistling in my ears. Through my tears I could see the bottom of the hill fast approaching, the lodge growing in size, the skiers’ movements becoming defined as they worked their way to the chair lifts or other slopes.
But Charley was too far ahead now to catch him. Already, he was racing into the lodge area, slicing through people as he turned and looked up to see where I was.
My eyes suddenly focused on a brown line that cut across the bottom of the slope directly in front of me.
What was that? I stared at it through tear-filled eyes as I raced forward.
A ditch? A rope? What was it?
I was going to hit it unless I could turn my skis. But I was moving too fast to turn, to do anything but crash into it.
Suddenly, I wasn’t thinking of Charley or our bet, but only of stopping before I reached the obstruction, looming like a large catastrophe.
My earlier weekend method of using the “snowplow” deserted me, and I wasn’t practiced enough to cut smartly and swoosh to a stop.
In a horrible panic, I knew I had to bail out NOW to stop from killing myself.
Barely in control, I had no alternative…
I fell to my left and in a cloud of snow and skis and poles, my body tumbled over and over down the slope. My skis came off my feet – one broke its binding with my boot and shot like a missile toward the lodge, barely missing skiers waiting at the chair lift. One of my red bamboo poles caught in the snow and broke in half sending the bottom piece with its metal spike twirling into the air. With both black handles still in my hands and tangled with my body, with my remaining ski tethered to my boot and pushing up against me in the snow, together we merged into a blinding avalanche of equipment and smothering white powder that grinded further and further down the slope.
Finally, I came to a stop just in front of the brown ditch. I sat up and saw immediately that it was not a ditch at all, but simply the tread marks of a bulldozer. I easily could have skied over the marks, like Charley and everyone else had done, if only I hadn’t panicked. The realization was overwhelming.
In slowly standing up, whimpering, trying to get the strap of my remaining ski unhooked from my boot, I realized blood, my blood, was streaming into the snow. Pain erupted on the side of my face. I put my glove against my head, and it was covered in blood.
Other skiers quickly came over to me and asked me if I was all right. Someone told me to sit down and wait for the ski patrol. Soon I was given a towel to press against my head and two big, burly guys I didn’t know, guys wearing red ski jackets with white cross-like markings, were carrying me into the lodge.
Someone on the ski patrol staff told me I had broken my pole and jammed it into the side of my face between my eyes and temple. They said the puncture was too deep to stop the bleeding. They asked me my name and if there was someone at the lodge or on the slopes they could call.
I could only think of Mother and how she had watched us get on the chair lift.
A speaker blared out across the resort asking my mother to come to the ski patrol’s office. I knew Mother had gone to Somerset, but I didn’t know what else to do.
Where was Charley? Where were Holly and Allison?
No one came and I started crying.
Suddenly Mother was running into the ski patrol’s office. She had been about to drive away, she told the staff, when she heard the speaker. She was so thankful she had delayed leaving; she just knew something was not right.
It would be okay, she told me.
She said Charley was outside. He had been outside all along. Allison and Holly were there too! They all were worried I might be dead.
Allison was such a tattle tail; she told Mother we were racing down the slope.
Boy, were we in trouble!
Mother said she was going to kill Charley and me.
(Later, Charley said that he didn’t care and that I owed him ten dollars!)
Soon, Mother and I were in our station wagon heading for the Somerset Hospital.
Holly, Charley, and Allison stayed at Hidden Valley, but I needed stitches for my face.
The doctors told Mother that an inch in either direction, and I could have either killed or blinded myself. As it was, the pain of cleaning the puncture wound was unbelievable. I received three stitches and a tetanus shot.
After that, I was told to lie on the gurney and rest. A half-an-hour or so later, a nurse brought me out of the emergency room to the waiting area where Mother was standing. She was talking to someone and didn’t see me.
“Here’s your mom and dad,” the nurse said to me.
When Mother turned, I realized it was not Daddy she was talking to, but Mister Bender, Mother and Daddy’s friend from the Somerset Country Club.
What was he doing here? Where was Daddy?
Mister Bender paused suddenly and looked down at me.
“Who won the bet,” he asked, half in jest, half irritated.
I didn’t respond but hugged Mother’s waist. She put her arms on me and rubbed my back.
“It wasn’t Jonathan,” she said, “but you can be sure, both he and Charley will be punished for this.”
“I swear, Helen,” Mister Bender said, “this was supposed to be our time.”
I had the strangest feeling I had interrupted their conversation.
“Do you think Jon would like to come to my office for ice cream?” he asked. “Would you like some ice cream?” he asked me.
Realizing I was staring at Mister Bender, but not responding, Mother said, “Maybe on another occasion, Jim. Some things can’t be helped.”
“Where’s my daddy?” I asked, finally, looking at Mister Bender. But Mister Bender was concentrating on Mother, ignoring me.
“Maybe get together later?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she responded, not sure what her next move should be.
Mother looked down at me, clutching her side. “Daddy’s at home,” she said, responding to my question. “Daddy didn’t answer the phone. Mister Bender was kind enough to come over. You should thank him.”
I looked at Mother and started to cry. My head hurt and I didn’t want to be there. Not with him. Not with the two of them, once again.
“We’ll go home,” she said to me. “You can be with your Daddy and I’ll get your brother and sisters.”
Mother looked at Jim Bender and gave him an awkward smile, “What an unusual year it has been,” she said.
The week before Charley and my bet, Mother and Daddy took our brand new toboggan Santa had given us to a late night party at the Somerset Country Club. As a modern couple, they wholeheartedly joined in a clandestine sledding-and-martini party on the golf course long after the Club had closed.
They were with Jim Bender and his wife and their other Somerset friends.
Holly was asked at the last minute to babysit us, but we kids, Charley, Allison and me, were in bed and knew nothing about it.
On Sunday morning, Mother came out of their bedroom, instead of Daddy, and told us Daddy wouldn’t be taking us to Sunday school that morning.
That was surprising. Daddy always took us to Sunday school.
When Daddy joined us at the dining room table for breakfast, he had large white gauze taped across the front of his throat. He waved off the toast and cereal.
“Daddy, what happened?” Holly asked. We were all staring at him.
Mother came in from the kitchen and told us to eat. She brought Daddy a cup of tea and sat down on her chair at the other end of the table.
“We were sledding on the golf course,” Mother told us, “the seventh hole, I think, when we ran into a stretched wire between a snow fence and a tree.”
“That wire could have sliced your daddy’s head off,” Mother added, shaking her head. “Jim Bender told everyone to duck, but your daddy never heard him. I was behind Jim and heard him, everyone heard him, but not your daddy.”
Daddy just stirred his tea.
“Your daddy’s scarf and winter coat saved him,” Mother continued, “but that incident ended our sledding for the night. We went to the hospital and now your daddy has twelve stitches across his throat.”
“I was in the very back,” Daddy whispered. “I never saw the wire.”
He tried a weak smile, but we could see it hurt too much to move his mouth.
“Your daddy was knocked out of the toboggan,“ Mother said. “None of us knew he was missing until we were all the way down near the green.”
“Luckily your daddy had had a few too many. We all found him in the snow, fast asleep, bleeding to death.”
Daddy slowly ran his hand across the gauze.
“Thank God, Jim knew what to do,” Mother added. “Jim drove us to the hospital and brought us home.”
“We didn’t need Jim’s help,” Daddy whispered. “You could have taken me to the emergency room. We could have made it home without him.”
“You should be grateful.” Mother responded, looking directly at Daddy across the table. “I don’t know what I would have done without him. Getting you up the hill and into the car, thank God he is our friend.”
Daddy nodded at that. “No more late night sledding at the Country Club,” Daddy mumbled. “I guess I owe him a great deal of thanks.”
“I will be sure to thank him for you,” Mother responded.
“Good,” Daddy said, suddenly irritated. “And see he brings back our toboggan too.”
“Chuck, that’s beneath you,” Mother responded, getting up from the table, gathering the boxes of cereal and carrying them into the kitchen.
Daddy looked at us and said he was going lie back down.
“What a strange year,” he muttered.
Allison and I looked at each other and finished our cereal in silence. We didn’t know why, but we hated Jim Bender being on our new toboggan.
That Thursday prior to Daddy’s calamity, when we woke up Christmas morning, it was as if Santa’s black bag ripped open and all the toys had dropped onto the living room floor. Toys we didn’t even know we wanted we opened that Christmas morning, and, as overwhelming as it all was, that wasn’t the end of it. After the gifts under the tree had been opened, Daddy announced Santa had one more surprise.
I glanced at Mother to see her reaction – after all, she was still angry about our new horse Suzie, Santa’s gift from two weeks earlier, but I was relieved to see her smiling at us, like she knew something we didn’t.
“Santa went a little overboard this year,” she said. “Didn’t he, Chuck.”
“Santa must love you kids very much,” Daddy said. “He loves you all very much.”
“We love Santa!” we responded so excited about all our gifts.
Daddy told us to open the front door and see what was outside.
Charley and Holly raced for the front door, but Allison and I ran to the picture windows instead. The view from our living room was of a crisp winter morning: we could see the snowy fields and distant woods, our frozen pond and the glistening top of the barn down the lane. But we didn’t see another horse, like Suzie, or a bear, or any other animals Santa might have wanted to give us.
Holly and Charley struggled to unlock the front door between our open living room and dining room areas. Though the door was difficult anytime of the year, it was especially hard in winter. Our lives, rather, evolved around the back door in the kitchen with its direct access to the backyard, our dog George, snow shovels, and the cars parked in the driveway.
Our front door opened onto the front patio covered in a pristine blanket of snow and two large gardens of rose bushes bedded down for the winter. A set of steps between the gardens led down to the snow-covered front yard, the pond where we skated on the thick ice, and the fields extending to the distant ridge-line lost under a heavy cushion of snow covering the stubble of harvested corn.
In the summer we didn’t like playing on the front patio; the thorns from the bushes would prick us and put tiny splinters in our fingers. Besides, the outdoor furniture was more formal than the furniture in the back. If Mother heard us in the front, she would knock on the plate glass windows from the dining room and tell us to stay off the furniture, to keep the cushions clean, to be careful around her bushes, and to mind George, our dog, who we all knew didn’t know any better.
But, in the winter, the front patio consisted of bedded roses, covered furniture, and snowdrifts piled up against the side of the house. We never shoveled the front patio and no one went out there until spring.
Holly and Charley finally unlocked the door and yanked it open. A blast of frigid air greeted them and quickly engulfed us all. We were in our pajamas and Allison and I screamed with how cold it was. But, when Charley and Holly squealed with excitement, we ran up to the entrance and saw for ourselves four sets of skis and red ski poles, along with a large glistening toboggan, embedded in the snow against the wall.
“Quickly,” Daddy said, “bring the skis into the house.”
Mother was excited at the moment, “Can you believe it, Santa gave each of you your own set of skis and a new toboggan for the family, too.”
I looked at Allison in amazement!
“Now you can ski all winter.” Daddy said, helping us lift the skis out of the snow.
Mother added, “Jim Bender says everyone at the Country Club has skis.“
We quickly carried the skis into the house and Mother helped us wipe them off.
Daddy brought out from their bedroom boxes of ski boots for each of us.
Though the stiff black ski boots fit our feet, Allison and I quickly discovered they were really hard to walk in, and while Daddy showed Holly and Charley how to clasp their boots onto their skis, it wasn’t long before Allison and I had fallen to the floor and were laughing ourselves silly at clomping around in boots in our pajamas.
Next, Daddy showed Allison and me how to connect our boots to the skis and soon we had no room to wiggle our feet at all.
Mother cautioned that if we tried to walk with the skis, we better be careful not to scuff her hardwood floors.
“Really, Chuck, maybe they should be outside.”
I discovered how hard it was to lift my foot and walk with skis that extended out from my boots four feet in the front and three feet behind.
But Charley said walking with skis was easy. Holly didn’t seem to have a problem either. However, soon Allison and my skis were crossing over each other and running into the furniture.
I fell against the dining room table and banged my head.
“Enough already” Mother said to Daddy. “Chuck, enough!”
“Okay, okay,“ Daddy replied. “Let’s put them on outside.”
“Can we go skiing?” Holly asked, as Daddy helped her unlatch her skis and placed them on the dining room table.
“Soon,” Daddy responded.
When he went over to Charley to help him take off the skis, Charley said, “I bet I am the fastest skier in the whole family.”
Daddy laughed, “Now, now, you all will be great skiers.”
“But first,” Mother said from the kitchen, “you have to take lessons.”
“Lessons are for babies,” Charley responded.
“We have a family pass to a ski resort called Hidden Valley,” Daddy said, “—and we already have you signed up for lessons this weekend.”
Mother chimed in, “Jim Bender says Hidden Valley is wonderful; his girls go there all the time.” She came out of the kitchen drying her hands. “They took lessons and now, Jim says, they’re really good and can ski on all the advanced slopes.”
Charley whispered to me that he already knew how to ski. He would teach Allison and me, he said. We would race Jim Bender’s daughters and beat them.
I agreed. Allison and I didn’t like Jim Bender or his stupid daughters.
“Will you ski with us?” Holly asked Daddy.
“I would love to ski with you kids,” Daddy said.
Daddy’s old skis were in the mudroom below the living room and were made of long slabs of thin wood with straps of leather bindings. They were from when he was a kid before World War II. Earlier in the winter, Allison and I had tried to put his skis on our snow boots, but we couldn’t figure out how the straps worked. Mother said we were making a mess in the mudroom and better get outside as she had told us.
We grabbed our sled and left Daddy’s skis for Daddy.
Our new skis were different. They looked like they were made of a plastic material of some sort and were bright blue and yellow and had the word “Heads” stenciled on them. The sparkling new ski poles were made of bamboo, with black straps around a leather-covered handle. The poles were bright red and would bend when we put our weight on them. Allison and I practiced using our poles without our skis and decided we liked skiing a lot, and skiing with poles would make skiing much easier.
“What about Mother?” Allison asked. “Where are her skis?”
Daddy told us that Santa realized Mother didn’t want to ski, but he said, she would enjoy watching us every weekend from the lodge.
That afternoon we went outside and tried skiing with our shiny new skis. We were in our stiff black ski boots and, slowly working our way around the house, we realized that skiing wasn’t nearly as easy as it looked: soon the boots were cutting into our calf muscles and though the bright red ski pole helped us to push our skis forward, the skis often had a mind of their own and slid backwards just as quickly.
Charley grew really frustrated. “We need a hill,” Charley said.
We found the new toboggan to be much more fun.
The toboggan was huge. Daddy said it was meant for up to six people and once we waxed the bottom, it would go really fast, faster than our sleds.
We all could ride the toboggan together, Daddy said, and no one was allowed to have their hands dragging in the snow. We had to sit with our legs across the lap of the person in front of us and when Daddy told us to lean to the left we were to lean to the left and when he said lean to the right we were to lean to the right. Everyone had to listen to the person in the very front.
—And, Daddy added, Allison and I were not allowed to lean so far over that we fell out of the toboggan. Though, as Daddy discovered, that is precisely what we did, and Allison and I laughed and laughed at how we crashed into the snow.
Charley said we were a bunch of babies.
All afternoon we practiced going down the snowy steps from the front patio and sliding into the yard. George, our black Labrador retriever, thought the whole thing was wonderful and kept barking and running alongside the toboggan. We even tried to see what the toboggan would be like on the frozen pond. Though Charley refused to pull us, Holly helped us at first, and later, Allison and I tried to get George to pull us, but he wanted to run after Holly and Charley instead. In the end, I pulled Allison and, once in a while, she even pulled me.
When Mother opened the front door and called me to the house for Christmas dinner, I was sitting by myself on the toboggan, my fingers inside my mittens frozen stiff from the cold and my coat, scarf, and hat covered in snow from falling out of the toboggan, sliding across the pond, and making snow angels with Allison. It was late in the afternoon, the moon was climbing into the crisp blue sky, and everyone else had gone inside.
I waved to Mother and realized at that moment, at that very moment, with Mother about to serve dinner, with Daddy carving the turkey, with my older brother and sisters excited and coming to the table, with my younger brother, Jerry, already in his booster seat and eating a small plate of turkey, corn, and mashed potatoes, with our horses, Ginger and Suzie, fed and bedded down for the night in their stable in the barn, and with Mean Old Willy long forgotten and George happily outside near the back door gnawing on his Christmas bone, I realized in a flush of warmth that rushed throughout my body and colored my cheeks, that this must be, absolutely had to be, the best year ever.
Looking back at our modern family living on our beautiful farm in the Allegheny Mountains in the early 1960s, and, at that time, not knowing what was about to unfold and how our lives would never be the same, it was, indeed, an unusual year, a strange year, and yet, the end of the best one ever.