My grandfather’s little tax deduction for the year 1934 arrived on New Year’s Eve. Anne Louise McFarland, my mother, grew up believing that all the fireworks and shouting every year on this day was in honor of her birthday. I grew up believing something very similar. My parents didn’t dress up and go out on New Year’s Eve…they dined at home on champagne and escargot and caviar and other delectable treats while listening to “The Midnight Special” on WFMT or to “Die Fledermaus” on TV or video. When I was old enough to stay up with them, we would sometimes catch the Times Square celebration and then declare East Coast midnight and go to bed an hour early. But the reason for the season was my mother, not the march of time. In my late teens, I didn’t go to other people’s parties, I still stayed home…and my boyfriend (soon to be husband) joined us. We enjoyed the best food and champagne and music and silliness and company without ever having to contend with drunk drivers on the roads. My mom lives 2,205 miles away from me now, but I am still planning to stay home and drink champagne and eat salmon and listen to wonderful music and think of her. She is still reason enough for all the joy and love and delight you might see tonight. I’ll show you why:
This is my mom and dad at her college graduation. That’s right, she graduated from Radcliffe, the female component to Harvard, at the age of 20. The woman has brains. With her late birthday and having skipped a year in elementary school, that means she went to college at age 16, all naive and nerdy with bad teeth and a lazy eye and glasses, but with a curiosity and charm that matured and eventually proved irresistible to my father, who, with money and pedigree and a Harvard degree, was “quite a catch”.
So, by 1965, she’s a mother of 4 little girls (that’s me, the baby, blonde, aged 3), running a household, volunteering with Eastern Star and the church and a host of other things. So stylish, so Jackie! This was Massachusetts, you know.
And she’s not afraid to go camping, either. This was a picnic picture taken by her mother-in-law. That would explain the handbags and the dress. My grandmother was never seen anywhere without a handbag and make-up. My mother was…often!
Fast forward 13 years. My mother gave birth to a boy when she was 38. She had 4 willing babysitters surrounding her and a handsome husband now sporting a beard. She’d also picked up a Masters degree in Church Music. We moved from Chicago to California where she became more adventurous in cuisine and hiking and music and new volunteer opportunities. This photo was taken the last Christmas that all her children were alive. My sister Alice (far left) died the next August.
A month after she’d turned 50, my mother became a grandmother for the first time. She’d also survived breast cancer by electing to have major surgery, something her own mother had done 10 years earlier. She was housing and caring for her barely mobile mother and raising a pre-teen son at this time as well. Do you see a grey hair? No? Neither do I. My mother is amazing.
Mom turns 55. She has 4 grandchildren, a 16-yr old son, and her mother has just died. She’s volunteering as a docent at the San Jose Historical Museum, a position she will hold for more than 20 years, specializing in their music department.
Here, she’s 60. My husband and I are traveling in Europe for our 10th anniversary, and she and Dad take our kids to the beach cottage for a few weeks. My husband survived double bypass surgery on his heart two years earlier. Yeah, Mom came out then, too, to take care of the kids…and me. Who has the energy to be with 4 kids (aged 3, 5, 7, & 9) at the beach for two weeks at the age of 30, let alone twice that? My mother. Although she did let me know (graciously) that it wasn’t easy.
In 2007, Mom came out with my sister and brother to see my daughter graduate from college. We all went to the cottage together again. This was my husband’s last trip: he died the following February. My father is not with us on this vacation. He is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, a condition he had for 7 years before his death. My mother visited him several times a week while he needed skilled care and played the piano for all the residents, jogging memories with old popular tunes and supporting the hymns during chapel services.
My father died in March of 2010. I had been widowed for 2 years. My kids and I flew back to California for his memorial service, and Dad’s ashes were buried next to my sister’s and my husband’s. My mother invited the family back to her house and we gathered around the piano again. She played and sang and laughed and cried, and I did, too, right by her side. My mother and I are alike in many ways, and I am so glad, proud and grateful to be a woman like her. I see her smile, I hear her voice, I taste her cooking and her tears, and feel her spirit flowing around and through me all the time. We’re going to party tonight, Mom. Miles be damned! Happy Birthday! I love you!
I really enjoy my No TV New Year’s celebrations. My late husband was a habitual TV user. He grew up that way, so New Year’s Eve with him always included some televised ball drop with interviews and pop music. My parents stored the TV in the den closet and brought it out on for certain occasions like National Geographic specials and episodes of Masterpiece Theater and Monty Python. Steve and I don’t even own a TV, so once more I am back on my original footing. What do we do instead? I’m so glad you asked.
Yesterday afternoon, after some homemade lentil soup, we snuggled up in bed with the laptop on the breakfast tray to watch another installment of the DVD we borrowed from the library: Simon Schama’s “The Power of Art”. The featured artist this time was JMW Turner. Epic skies, light, emotion, chaos, romanticism. The photography in the film paralleled the visual of the oil paintings quite effectively. It was a scenic feast. The sun was setting while we watched and cast its last rays across the bed as it ended. We discussed the experience for a while, and then I excused myself to nod off for a nap. My brain was over-stimulated, I think, and I needed to close my eyes to let the images settle.
I awoke about an hour later. I was thinking about a book on photography that my son had been browsing on Christmas. I went downstairs to find it and fix drinks and appetizers. Steve joined me and brought a book on Turner that he had found in his stack. So we nibbled brie and Gorgonzola on crackers and sipped vodka martinis while looking at pictures and discussing art. The attempt to point to something beyond ourselves, to depict holistically the experience of living in body, mind and soul…how do we do that? Reality isn’t all realistic…impressionism, expressionism & romanticism try to get at something more, something beyond, some movement and change that is hidden but implied. As we talked, the salmon fillet was baking and the brown rice simmering. We moved on to dinner and talked about memories. I was recalling the last heart surgery my late husband had and how I tried to manage my anxiety as I looked out the window in the atrium of the cardiac wing. Consciousness and fear, peace and presence. What is reality, anyway? I drained my glass of the last drops of Chardonnay and cleared the dishes. We then settled on the couch with James Joyce’s Dubliners to read our favorite story, “The Dead”. I first read this aloud to Steve our first Christmas together. We had gone to a bed & breakfast place in Whitewater, Wisconsin called The Hamilton House. We had “The Pisarro” room in this 1861 mansion, and I read to him from the satin-covered four poster that night. I remembered enjoying a chance to use my theatrical British accent and reveling in the details of the text that reminded me of my family’s Christmas celebrations. I had absorbed the atmosphere and the dialogue, but didn’t really catch the arc of the piece that first time. I had been curiously surprised to find Steve in tears as I finished. So, last night, I paid particular attention to the end of the story, the widening of scope in the main character’s vision. The story is brilliantly crafted. “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” I read the final line and looked up to see Steve wiping his eyes. He spoke a while about the expansive feeling of love that story illustrates for him.
Subdued but happy, I rose to check the time. It was already NYC midnight, so I brought out the bottle of champagne and the fruitcake my eldest sister had sent. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “You had me up to the fruitcake!” But listen, this recipe has been in my family for as long as I can remember. It’s Julia Child’s version, I think. It’s dark and rich with fruit and nuts and brandy and rum. I topped our slices off with a little hard sauce, too. (You know, brandy and sugar and butter…like frosting.) Forget your prejudices and work with me, people! So we ate fruitcake, sipped champagne and talked about our year together. I moved in with him last January 10; he’d been living alone almost his entire adult life. We had my daughter’s cat for the first 8 months of the year. We took a 4 week road trip to the West Coast in April. We entertained family and friends for dinner and “sleep overs”. We have changed, danced, been with each other in all of our facets and moods. It’s been a beautiful year. The digital clock on the stove shone out 12:00 and we kissed. We finally put on some music to accompany the new year. Steve selected the movie soundtrack from “2001: A Space Odyssey”. We skipped the Richard Strauss and listened to the atonal and dissonant Ligeti pieces and then the Blue Danube waltz. Mysterious, elegant, spacious. Our world is huge. I don’t like to imagine it being shut up in a box on TV. I am looking forward to sampling it all year in different ways, through all of my senses.
The social tradition in this country is to spend New Year’s Eve with the person who is most important to you, someone with whom you’d like to spend your future. That first kiss of the New Year is supposed to impart good fortune for the year to come. For many Americans, then, it’s off to parties to drink up and link up in an attempt to avoid the curse of loneliness for the rest of your life.
Yeah, well, I’ve never seen it quite like that. You see, New Year’s Eve is also my mother’s birthday. We always spent it at home, having a family celebration. When I got married and moved out, my new nuclear family did the same thing. We dressed up in prom gowns and tuxes (and sometimes like pirates) and danced in the living room, sipping champagne and listening to the weirdest music we had. Kisses were passed between husbands and wives and fathers and daughters and mothers and sons and sometimes siblings. Our future was with the family; our past was with the family. The two were intertwined, and we liked it that way. We watched the ball drop in NYC some years, and sometimes we just let the kids run outdoors with big spoons and pots and pans and make all the noise they liked at midnight. One year, we were visiting Jim’s best friend’s family, and the kids had a silly string fight in the middle of the street that afternoon. They made a huge mess. Which makes me wonder: who cleans up the confetti after New Year’s Eve in NYC? How much gets recycled?
Who do I want to be next year? My future is rooted in my past and lived in the present. I will always live with my family legacy coursing through my veins, pulsating in my brain. I am my father & mother’s daughter, Jim’s lover, my kids’ mother, and that will stay with me year after year. I am also Steve’s partner, a writer, a budding naturalist. I hope to become a home economist & ecologist. I want to keep on practicing awareness, appreciation, attitude and action. Ultimately, the person with whom I will spend my future is…myself. At the stroke of midnight, I’ll look myself in the eye and say, “You and me, kid! It’s gonna be a great year!” Hopefully, I won’t feel cross-eyed and alone when I do. And I promise I’ll clean up after myself.