The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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My family has never gone in for grand celebrations. The weddings I remember, growing up in our small Southern town, were brief, pale affairs, with canapes and ginger ale punch afterward in the church social hall.
I’ve lived elsewhere for more than half my life now, mostly among people with big families and ethnic backgrounds and heartier celebratory traditions. From my friends I got the idea that children are obligated to throw a grand affair for major wedding anniversaries. As my parents’ fiftieth approached, I consulted my colleagues. Have it catered, they said, away from home. And be prepared for people to cry.
I arranged long distance for a banquet room in a hotel — with food, wine, flowers, wedding cake, and music — and contacted my parents’ friends. I managed to pull the whole thing off as a surprise. No one cried, and strong encouragement was required to get the champagne toasts going. But everyone seemed to have a good time and my parents were visibly delighted, and, at moments, even emotional. It was an event without precedent in our family.
The next day I went to the hotel to pay the bill. An enormous quantity of wine was left undrunk. On my way out I passed the open door into the banquet room. The morning-after emptiness and disarray drew me in to look for something, traces of our presence there the previous night, our festivity, our feelings. The linen cloth, askew at one end and spotted with food stains and candle wax, still covered the long center table. Daddy’s fork lay on the floor where he’d knocked it as he and Mama cut the cake. I picked it up and tears came to my eyes.
At home he had said repeatedly, “I don’t know how to tell you what this means.” I don’t know how either, I wanted to say. I don’t know what it means.
I pulled a chair up to the place where I had sat the night before and lay my head on the table and cried.
Oh, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy. I know you can’t tell me, nor can I tell you — ever, probably. Here we are, you toward the end of your life, I at the middle of mine, and we can no more speak the words or even frame the thoughts of what we mean to each other than we could when I was a newborn and you a new father, already sharing the unnameable bond of dark likeness and dark moods. We both know how it feels to have feet too small for our bodies, long-lashed eyes that bulge, lids that hang asymmetrically as we age, teeth that are too many and too large but make a good smile; to have less chin and more nose than we would like, and to care about it; to gaze the way a glutton eats, with eyes that hunger for newness and beauty, that ceaselessly register and compare, that kiss, devour, ravage, and remember. We both know about being cold when everybody else is warm, and fearing cold like death; restless sleep and night sweats and walking insomnia at full moon; waking to such heaviness of heart that even beauty has no appeal, and laughing with such abandon that the black depths seem never to have existed. What is there to say when the same soul informs our lives?
And Mama, you were so poised throughout the celebration while I was so nervous. What is there to say about how different we are? That we love each other anyway, across the differences. That I love your very beauty, which I do not share and feel to be so alien — deep, blue eyes, the finest eyebrows, perfectly balanced nose and chin, small, pearly teeth, beautiful cheeks. Being with you always feels like home — that ancient mix of deep familiarity and sweet, soft pleasure. I think I’ve always longed — and always will long — to be with you again in the way we were in my earliest memories: the two of us on the grass under the mulberry tree shelling butter beans, you in that flowered voile dress the color of your eyes.
In another twenty-four hours I was a thousand miles away, passing around Polaroid prints to the people I worked with. The snapshots did not show the grand and glittering affair they had encouraged me to throw. But the groups of elderly people in nice clothes, looking as happy and awkward as people invariably do at such gatherings, testified to the event’s success. The flashbulb sheen of texture and color suggested the standard mix of gaiety, affection, nostalgia, and sentimentality, revealing nothing of the silent depth of love at the heart of the celebration.
St. Louis, Missouri
I’m sitting in a rocking chair in an old house in Portland, Oregon, with my two girls in my lap: my big little girl, Zoe, three-and-a-half years old, and my little little girl, Marriah, about twenty minutes old. There’s a huge strawberry torte someone brought, cut up, and served on paper plates with plastic forks. The two midwives, the nurse, her assistant, and the back-up labor coach are eating, and talking about the birth; my wife is in the bathtub, soaking, relaxing.
When Zoe was born, she emerged peacefully, mouth closed, big eyes wide open to her new environment. Marriah’s birth was a little difficult, and she emerged eyes closed, mouth open. Mama could not calm her. Neither midwife could calm her. I could not calm her.
Zoe had been saying, “Let me hold her, let me hold her,” for fifteen minutes, and we had promised her she could. So I sat down in the rocking chair and Zoe climbed into my lap and Marriah was placed in her lap. Marriah stopped crying, immediately.
Find a prouder three-and-a-half-year-old anywhere.
So here we all are, celebrating. I can manage my strawberry torte with my free hand, but Zoe’s just sits there because she’s not interested in it.
Don’t you have to believe in something to have celebrations, holidays, things like that? I don’t believe in anything.
Every Simchas Torah I dance till 2 a.m. at a synagogue on 79th Street, but that doesn’t seem like a celebration, because my eyes are closed. Meditation makes you feel all time is made of one thing (the Greeks used the word thread); but celebrations make you feel time has changed to silk or gold or that green tubing that lights in the dark that you wear around your neck at rock ’n’ roll concerts. (Are Grateful Dead concerts celebrations? I feel uplifted there, but not like I’m celebrating anything. A celebration has a reason — the sun is in Equinox or the Pirates won the World Series. The Dead turn time colors — but just to show time can be any color you want. That’s not a celebration, that’s a lesson.)
When I was a kid, Saint Jude’s Fair came to 207th Street at summer’s end, in the playground of the Catholic school. You’d see the Ferris wheel, try to hit the floating ducks with guns, guess the future on a Fortune Wheel to win a rabbit. It was all very glamorous, and meant punchball was over and weary months of trigonometry were setting in.
New York, New York
I was in my thirties before celebrations like Christmas and Easter began to be nearly as happy as they are portrayed to be. I think I am lucky that I finally learned how to celebrate.
Although holidays such as those are high points for me, I now celebrate little occasions all the time. A recent celebration involved an old man and a butterfly.
Walking down our gentrified street, looking in shop windows, I saw a butterfly beating himself against a window, trying to escape from a store. I went in to rescue him. As he flapped frantically against the glass, I found it difficult to catch him without hurting his wings. He slowed down for an instant to rest, brought his orange and black wings together, and I made my move. I held him gently and carried him back to the street.
At that moment an old man, wearing a white shirt and khaki trousers as wrinkled as his face, was walking toward me. As I let the butterfly go, the old man looked at me, first curiously, then with understanding as he watched the butterfly disappear over the rooftops.
Gretchen Rose Newmark
Santa Monica, California
My earliest memories of celebrating myself reach back to childhood times spent alone, facing the Carribean sea or the Atlantic ocean, usually at sunset. I came from a home where everybody minded each other’s business, so it was a profound delight and relief to experience the space I was occasionally able to create by walking alone to the beach. I was conscious of limitless possibilities during these brief moments, until I had to return to my insulated, defined world.
As I wandered through my nervous adolescent years, I found a way to carve out my own space in the house. I would endlessly play my favorite forty-fives, the ones that created the feeling “groove” I craved.
In my twenties, I discovered alcohol and drugs; I became addicted to them, as well as to new forms of music and the natural high of woods, lakes, and rivers. Hiking with a group, I would invariably, at some point, bolt down a side path alone without saying a word to the others. The part of me that had always felt overly responsible for the emotional care of other family members now felt compelled to rebel against the expectations of communication. Similarly, I would leave bars or parties at a certain point to walk in the rain or sit on a roof — to feel the fullness of self once again.
As my chemical dependencies progressed, I arranged with my employer to work a four-day week; the fifth day I would party with myself, using alcohol, drugs, soul and Latin records, and my bongo drums. I loved the feeling that the rest of the world was working and there was barely a possibility of intrusions. The bittersweet groove of soul ballads — accompanied by obsessive thoughts of my latest infatuation — became another drug for me, another room in my mind.
By my early thirties, I set aside these enchanting, self-destructive toys. I had to endure depression as I waited for growth. Very slowly it came; I gradually gave up alcohol, then drugs, then cigarettes, then caffeine. I am now working on overeating.
I had created an insulated house within my mind, a metaphor for the house of my childhood. It smothered me, forcing me out of the cocoon to look for myself, the scales fallen from my eyes. I still relish “mental health days” away from work, and walks alone. But today I can attain feelings of peace, love, and union in the presence of others and in a flexibility of time and place. It gets easier as I get more practice defining my own boundaries and facing my fears — without my former addictions or dependencies on dramatic personalities. Behind my flamboyant celebrations of self in the past was the lingering fear that I really had no self.
Recently, I took part in the spontaneous ceremony of a beloved friend’s housewarming. We meditated, burned sage, played instruments, chanted, danced, and wrote affirmations. I felt freed from the compulsion to control, yet free to give. What a blessing.
Last year, when I learned I needed to have a hysterectomy, a friend suggested I have a celebration to honor the event.
There were twelve of us at the ritual — eight women friends, my two daughters, the daughter of a friend, and I. My husband helped me set the stage, then went out for the evening. We set twelve piles of pillows in a large circle in the living room. We lit fires in the two fireplaces and placed red candles all over the room. The fires and the candles provided the only light. I placed vases of red flowers around the room, and put a big bowl of fruit on a side table, next to a beautiful shell shaped like the opening to a womb, a gift from my husband. In the center of the circle of pillows, on a tray, were a vase of red tulips, a healing crystal, a water-filled glass candelabra, and a picture of me when I was about twelve, at the beginning of my menstrual time. Nearby were a pitcher of water, a bowl, and a towel. Four tall, unlit candles were placed outside the circle in the four directions. Relaxing “ocean music” played on the tape recorder.
As each woman arrived, she chose a seat, sitting in silence until the circle was complete. I asked everyone to hold hands. Next came the invocation, delivered movingly by Carol, calling on the powers of the four directions. Leah, my ten-year-old daughter, lit the candles. I welcomed each woman, describing her particular strength and unique power. Then I asked the others to speak.
For more than an hour, we told womb stories, sharing our deep connection with life’s changes and seasons. Each woman had her own story or poem or affirmation. One had brought three carnations: a white one for Leah, who was pre-menstrual; a white one tinged with red for my other daughter, Rachel, who at twelve was newly menstrual; and a red one for me, about to be post-menstrual. After the stories and poems, Susan led us in a guided meditation focused on the cycles of the moon. Then, we slowly passed around a rock I had found on the beach at sunrise, and we each imagined our pain pouring into the rock. When it returned to me, I placed it in the bowl, washed it, and dried it with the towel. We then passed the rock around again, this time imagining our love and joy pouring into it. I took this rock with me to the hospital, where it was a reminder of life in that sterile, lifeless environment.
Finally, I lay in the center of the room. Everyone put her hands on me as Susan led us in a healing meditation and chant. I could feel the energy pouring through me, energy which was very much with me four days later during the operation. As we slowly rose to stand in a circle, arms around each other, the power of our time together was palpable. The candlelight, the flowers, the red rug, the love and warmth, all came together and shimmered around us.
My operation was a remarkable success. The surgeon said she had never performed a smoother one. Those of us who had celebrated the event together were not at all surprised. Although for most of us the gathering had been our first experience of celebrating female power in a ritualized way, we all had the sense of connecting with something deeply familiar, deeply healing.
West Newton, Massachusetts
Born deaf and nearly blind, Karen spent years in a state institution, where she was left unattended in a dayroom with others bigger and more violent.
Now, she’s with Helen, who doesn’t mind taking her out in public. Once, while Helen and I set up tables for a flea market in a school ballroom, Karen stood alone in the middle of the empty room.
She leaned her head back to watch the ceiling light. Her mouth fell open in a loose smile, and she started to spin. Like an ice skater she spun faster and faster, pulled her fists to her face, and spun faster and smiled.
I felt like a fallen creature, incapable of such a pure celebration of God.
“Celebration equals forced fun” is an equation many of us seem to buy into unwittingly. We spend long weekends overindulging in food, drink, sun, relatives, sports, and whatever else we feel deprived of the rest of the year. When it comes to celebrations most of us have a penchant for poison.
But alternatives like homemade presents, hot apple cider, new games, and good clean fun don’t express the heart of celebration for me, either.
For me, celebration is in no way divorced from the business of daily living. True celebration seems born of grace, the child of serendipity. The first robin of Spring, a rainbow mysteriously appearing in my rear-view mirror as I drive through miles of urban blight, the tender taste of fresh asparagus, an old woman religiously feeding the pigeons and sparrows from her park bench kitchen, my daughter losing her first tooth — these are the golden moments of celebration that I stumble upon every day.
Celebration begins in my heart. It can be shared and made manifest through a wink, a hug, a kind word. I’ve yet to find a way to cater celebration, pre-plan it, confine it to any particular red-letter day on the calendar.
And so, while I cherish my fatherly role as Santa Claus, help create a vegetarian version of Norman Rockwell’s “Saturday Evening Post” Thanksgiving, and dutifully commiserate with my birthday-partying friends, I know true celebration will most likely arrive unannounced, no R.S.V.P. needed. After hours of fruitless labor, the exact line I’ve been searching for arrives to complete the poem. My youngest daughter learns to pronounce “spaghetti.” My car starts in a snowstorm even though I foolishly left it parked with the lights on for three hours. Someone loves me.
I’ve yet to find a day not worth celebrating.
South Bend, Indiana
Jogging late in the afternoon on Thanksgiving Day, I find suburban America almost eerily devoid of moving cars, or people outside of houses. Everyone, I assume, is in front of a television or a turkey leg, or both. I become conscious for the first time this season that this is a holiday, a celebration, a day to be with family and friends — not just a long weekend off from work.
I realize I have been acting as if celebrations do not matter, as if, enlightened person that I am, I need no excuse to be grateful, to acknowledge love, to express joy. Why, don’t I do that every day? Or, at least, can’t I? And do I need the presence of others to celebrate? Of course not, I say, as I chug past well-lit homes with crowded driveways and smoking chimneys.
My wife is visiting her mother in New Jersey and my son is visiting friends in Massachusetts. At first, I welcomed the time of solitude — as I have always done, as I easily do. But now, suddenly, I see my self-centeredness, my safeness, my blindness to the likelihood that celebrating alone is not celebrating at all.
As I turn finally down my street, the place where my home is, I vow to be among people I love during future celebrations. And I give thanks for this, my last Thanksgiving alone.