I’ve spent New Year’s in Vegas. Gone to parties large and small. I've watched the makeshift ball drop in 34th Street in Baltimore. I’ve had some good times, some not so good. But for me, I don’t suspect any New Year’s celebration will surpass those first few I can recall at my grandmother’s house.
From 1991-1997, I rung in the new year at Grandma Jean’s. My sister and I would cram much of our stuffed animal collection into our overnight bags. We’d fetch the crystal punch bowl from the storage space above my grandmother’s foyer and meticulously assemble it, hanging the little mugs from the hooks at the side of the bowl before making our punch--a concoction of sodas, juices, (one ill-conceived year) milk, and whatever else my grandmother might have in her fridge. We staged lip synch performances, played cards, and sung songs. By the end of the night, we watched the ball descend on Times Square on TV, and banged together pots and pans to ring in the new year.
The last year I spent New Year’s with my grandmother, my sister had stopped coming. She had withdrawn from the proceedings by degrees--one year spending an hour of the party on the phone with her boyfriend; another, spending the first leg of the night with friends before she was dropped off at Grandma’s, and finally not coming at all. As a thirteen-year-old boy, I don’t think anyone much expected that I’d want to keep up the New Year’s tradition of staying with Grandma all on my own.
But I did.
There were many parts of my childhood and early teenage years that I didn’t care for. My father’s refusal to heat the house in the winter. Having my lack of coordination publicly exposed time and again in gym class. My proclivity for profoundly felt crushes that never went anywhere.
For all of these reasons, New Year’s Eve felt sacred and I struggled to fathom spending the holiday with anyone but my grandmother.
But though we’d had plenty of sessions of playing board games or watching TV on our own, and would continue to do so for years to come, that night felt different. Less natural, more forced. I hid my disappointment when Grandma said it wasn’t worth the trouble to fetch the punch bowl out of storage. I think that she grew very conscious that I might feel bored with her company, and around ten o’ clock removed a bottle of Peach Schnapps from the pantry and poured me a shot. I took a sip and didn’t like it. She poured the remainder down the drain.
And so, we were both completely sober as we watched the ball drop. We tidied the kitchen afterward and extracted the mattress from the pull-out couch for me to sleep on. “You’re a good kid,” she said. We hugged and said good night.
One of the hardest pieces of traditions is recognizing when it’s time to let one go--when the repetition and comfortableness have surpassed meaning, enrichment, or even enjoyment. When it came to spending New Year’s with my grandmother, I feel fortunate that there was a neat departure point, and that when the time came for us to stop sharing that night together, I don’t suspect she felt abandoned, nor did I feel rejected. That just as I had stopped bringing stuffed animals with which to spend the night at Grandma’s, so too had spending the night at Grandma’s altogether become something we mutually outgrew.
There are times in my adult life when I reflect on my grandmother as my favorite figure from my childhood; I recall and contextualize the ways in which she influenced and inspired me. And in these moments, I wish I could sit across the card table from her one more time, for one more round of Canasta over Diet Coke and potato chips, and, yes, that I could once again join her for a glass of New Year’s punch, countdown to midnight, and sing “Auld Lang Syne.”
These are vibrant memories. Ones of the truest love I’ve known and some of the best times of my life. As such, though I might type these words a bit wistfully, and though I wish I’d spent a little more time with Grandma Jean in her final years, the gestalt of the reflections brings me joy, not sadness. For what was, and for what may still be. For the hopes of not just new years past, or this particular new year, but the many, many years that might lie ahead, and the many forms of love and happiness those years might entail.
Happy New Year. And to Grandma Jean--wherever, whenever, whatever you may be--I love you always.