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In search of the year that’s just gone by

The year crept out like a kitten down the hall, leaving only soft imprints of its passing. True, there are still a couple of days left, but for the most part 2002 is gone, and one wonders, where did it go?

You can look for its existence in the news, of course, in all those year-end wrap-ups offered by both the print and electronic media, complete with pictures and poetry, but that’s not where the year goes for people like us. Ordinary folks.

We’re not generally associated with the larger events that demand to be noticed, except possibly as victims or as remote viewers like spectators at a football game. I’m talking about the year as we know it that disappeared down the hall or around a corner somewhere. Our year. The small year.

I was thinking about this the other night, about how everyone is saying, “Where did the year go?” They say it as though the year were a tangible thing, maybe even a living creature, like the kitten, or a bird that suddenly flew out an open window.

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I asked a friend where the year went and he said, pointing to his newfound gray hair, “Right here!” But he was talking about time, which is a grander show, and I was thinking on a smaller scale, like a lounge act in Las Vegas.

“Where did the year go?” I asked Cinelli, and she handed me a new photograph of our grandchildren, who have grown taller and smarter and wiser. “Right there,” she said softly, thinking of them as the babies she held and now as kids growing up.

Yes, I suppose, the year is the passage of lives and phases that we mark with tears and laughter, with awe and wonder. Where did the little girl go who is now a teenager? Where did the little boy go who is now a man?

“I wasn’t really thinking about that exactly,” I said to her.

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“Then,” she said, “where did the year go? Maybe you should look for it.”

She ignites my thinking process. I could not be a writer without her, a woman who can throw an idea into a breeze and send it fluttering like a butterfly. Look for it indeed.

Perhaps the year is in my closet, where old and new clothes register fluctuations in weight and taste. But I have only vague recollections of wearing that dark suit to a wedding and the blazer to a reception and the turtleneck sweater to dinner. If the year is there, I can’t find it.

Maybe it’s in the boxes of mementos I have stored away, or in the large plastic containers of scripts and manuscripts that I’ve stuck here and there. I save them because I don’t know what else to do with them. Too many memories are encompassed in the mementos and too much work in the written words to just toss them away.

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Only one batch of paper, 300 pages, is pertinent to the year that is all but gone, and that’s the book I’ve just finished. Much of 2002 is there, in the days and hours I spent assembling the paragraphs that dwell in the mind’s corners, waiting like puppies to be let into the house.

Kittens, puppies, birds. I realized as I composed these words that I kept thinking of the year in terms of small animals, and that led me to wonder whatever became of the squirrel that lived in the oak tree just outside our dining room window. Did he, like the year, run off somewhere to spend the cold nights in a warmer place, promising to return when the chill passed? Does a year, like a squirrel, have those instincts?

As I looked for the squirrel, I noticed the garden. Surely the year is contained there, in the growth of shrubs and trees and the sudden appearance of an autumn flower that refuses to die in the changing seasons. I considered the fir tree, now 12 feet tall, that we bought as a living Christmas tree so many years ago when our teenagers were babies and my hair less gray.

Where did the year go?

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I turned finally to my appointment book, where the year lived in doctor’s visits and dinners, in interviews and meetings, in vacation reminders and birthday parties, in duties and deadlines, in quick trips and long illnesses.

Is that where the year went, in the minutia of living? In coming and going, eating and sleeping, driving and walking, shopping and watching television and holding a little grandson in your arms? Of course. The year settles in that place where small memories live, glimpses of the past that endure long after more calamitous events are forgotten. It creeps down the hall and out the door and nestles in a tree where time hides.

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Al Martinez’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He’s at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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