A clean slate. A do-over. The Ultimate Eraser. A new start.
Those are things we all look forward to on New Year’s Day, right? I’m a sucker for dates and the symbolism that comes with special ones.
Last year was a hard one for me. I lost my father in the early part of the year and the rest of 2013 seemed like a giant maze of estate sales, clearing out and probate with a little time for grief and mourning along the way. It seemed we were too busy to even sit down and be still. Then the holidays came with the unwelcome reminder that this was the first Christmas for my sister and me without our parents. Trying to go about the season as we normally would, I planned a Christmas Eve feast just as my mother used to do. My sister suggested “simple and low-key,” and that seemed like a good idea. Except it’s not me. A full menu of appetizers, an elaborate main course, several desserts and special drinks was set along with plans for after-dinner presents and games, which was the tradition of my mother’s German heritage and the way we did things when we were kids.
Best laid plans.
I’m not sure if it was more National Lampoons or A Christmas Story, but a comedy of errors caused me to my scrap the entire menu just before guests were to arrive. The original idea was a traditional turkey meal. When I realized I put the gift certificate for the bird through the washing machine, I decided to go a much different route. I would whip up a beautiful Standing Rib Roast of Beef with several elegant side dishes to go with a generous spread of impressive appetizers and homemade peppermint bark, melt away cookies and an apple walnut torte for dessert. It was going to be a Food Network Christmas and I believed I could do this while also finishing the last of the homemade soaps, laundry detergents and bath salts I was giving as gifts. Alone—because everyone else works for Godless companies which were open on Christmas Eve. I set out shopping at the last minute and discovered that no store had the cut of meat I needed; after a brief fit, the food snob in me caved and I ordered a heat and serve ham dinner from Kroger, which I was going to allow everyone to believe I slaved over myself.
Except they didn’t write down the order. And they were about to CLOSE.
At 5pm on Christmas Eve, I had no dinner and no time or inclination to prepare one. I’m not known for being calm or even rational, especially over the last few months, so I popped open a beer and announced that Christmas was cancelled. Anyone who wanted to eat would have to order a pizza. Cooler heads prevailed, however, (thank God I have cool people in my life to offset my hot head), and we all went out for sushi before going back to my house for gifts, games and drinks. I’m not sure if that was the start of a new tradition for my family, but that night, it actually felt good to let go of the need to make things perfect or to keep things the same, especially when they’re not the same or perfect.
We started a fresh New Year’s Eve tradition this year as well. Tammy, Jeff, Dawn and I set out for an overnight trip to Memphis to ring in 2014 with a few thousand Elvis impersonators. Mom would’ve been so proud.
As we drove, I thought about holidays gone by when my dad and I would watch Christmas Eve Mass from St. Peter’s on TV while my sister rolled in the shredded wrapping paper and my mom started preparing the meal for the next day’s Christmas lunch. I thought about the Christmas morning when I was 9 and woke up to find Santa had left the skateboard, the Miami Dolphins football uniform AND the baby doll I had asked for. I thought about the year I turned 16 and wanted a car—any car—for Christmas. My mom in her wry sense of humor attached the key to a bright red Ford Tempo to the bottom of a Hot Wheels Camaro. She snapped a series of photos of my “that’s funny” face before discovering the key; the glossy print reveals my puzzlement about what was happening as my dad smiles at me—both of us experiencing sheer exhilaration for much different reasons.
Me: Is this for real? What is it? WHERE IS IT? I can’t wait to tell my best friend Jennifer WE have a car!!!
Dad: I can’t believe my baby is old enough to drive.
I thought about our family’s long-held New Year’s Eve tradition which meant dressing up and going to Steak and Ale for dinner. When I was little, it was exciting to order Shirley Temples and pretend I was at some exclusive event. My imagination ensured I always looked forward to this occasion. I thought about how handsome my dad looked in his best suit and the year my mom forgot to make reservations. That year I was 15 and I had a date later that night. My dad insisted we keep the tradition and wait for a table. His scheme to keep me from plans with a boy made her so mad she refused to eat. I never made the date. Today, this memory is funny; but I didn’t speak to him for a month. I recalled our younger years when mom would give us horns and hats and let us drink drank sparking apple juice from plastic champagne flutes while my sister and I performed skits for pre-midnight entertainment.
I also remembered the Christmas my mom was too sick to celebrate and how she spent it sleeping on the couch. That same Christmas, my beloved uncle Earl was also so riddled with cancer he barely had the energy to sit at the dinner table. It was our last Christmas with both of them. I remembered how the next Christmas was a blur, how none of us could figure out the hows or whys of celebrating, so we didn’t. Those memories gave way to years of happier ones as Tammy, my dad and I tried to establish new takes on old traditions and trying to replicate my mom’s famous dishes from memory. I remembered 2012—Tammy’s and my first Christmas as married people—and Dad’s last. This memory is frozen in time. Dad had a new daughter in law and a new son in law and we were all hopeful and happy. A lovely meal was followed by way too many gifts all around, games and lighting the Christ candle at Christmas Eve services with Dad. We didn’t know how quickly that would be extinguished.
Fast forward one year. As we were enjoying the calm of a nice dinner amid the clamor of Beale Street, I dropped the question everyone knew I would: “what are your resolutions? What do you want to be different in 2014?” Everyone groaned, echoing the feeling I was having myself: no resolutions in 2014, just a single, common hope: peace.
It hit me that that “clean slate” people say they want doesn’t exist. We carry our memories with us, the good and the bad, along with the traditions, deconstructed and changed as they may be. The people, even those we’ve lost, come with us as well. And really, who wants to erase everything? Surely there were valuable lessons learned in mistakes, grace in even the worst circumstances, and happiness in the memories. They all make us stronger and more whole. And we always go back to the joyful ones.
The vows to stop eating cupcakes and hit the gym everyday are worthy endeavors…it’s also a great idea to pledge to be better stewards of our time and money. But soon, we will splurge, feel like failures and scrap the entire idea, wondering why we do the same things year after year (unless, of course, you’re one of those people who make and keep resolutions past the Super Bowl. If that’s the case, congrats!) Or maybe, “life happens,” putting things into a new perspective and you realize that the resolutions weren’t as important as you thought they were in the bleary first hours of a new year. This year, as I looked back on the last, I wanted 2014 to be one in which I focused on the opportunities to sow new seeds rather than build entirely on the ones I had lost. We have an opportunity to stop letting the bad define us more than the good. I learned this the hard way after months of being angry and sad, wanting to withdraw from everyone and everything. While I always felt I was a “giver,” I didn’t want to give anything and blistered at the idea of anyone needing me. On top of that, I was giving myself the hardest time about needing quiet, about not being “over” my dad and I hated that feeling as much as the grief.
So, this year, I’m going to try to give myself a break and better reflect one of my favorite prayers, the Prayer of Saint Francis. I figure that if I can at least be these things, the year will have been more successful than achieving any of the resolutions I considered forcing myself to make.
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.
“Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
In good times and in bad, let us find peace in the New Year.
New Year’s Eve at Steak and Ale, 1983.