When I was 16, my best friend Susan threw her first New Year’s party. We were part of an expressive group of music/theater kids. Each of us was different in some painful way: we had a deceased parent, or divorced parents, or were stuck in a 1980s homophobic closet. However, in our group, we belonged; bonded by the love of creativity, self-expression, and Dan Fogelberg. Susan’s party involved loud music (Doobie Brothers, B-52s), vigorous dancing, and underage drinking of terrible champagne. We slept over and began the new year together, cleaning up paper plates, plastic cups and empty bottles.
The next year Susan hosted another party, and the year after that too. So, it began that I spent every New Year’s Eve with Susan (my “monkey” friend in my book, Flashback Girl, in case anyone is tracking that).
As we grew older, we left Susan’s parents’ house, and celebrated in our own cramped apartments, but still, we were always together. In our twenties, my friends Caryn and Brad joined us, and we became a New Year’s foursome. Then Susan and I each got married, and our husbands joined. Then Caryn and Brad had children. Then I did and so did Susan. There were two divorces. Then there were two remarriages. Picture a multi-cell organism swirling about, constantly evolving, with an unchanging nucleus (me and Susan). Some cells broke off, some cells joined in, but always the same organism, ringing in the New Year together.
New Year’s is our friends’ holiday, which we joyfully recreate every December. Caryn cooks massive feasts with worldly themes (Thai night, Spanish night, etc.), capped off with an aromatic chocolate souffle, warm from the oven. Susan plays guitar and gifts us with her perfect alto voice, declining compliments with a shake of her head. I lead us in overly emotional toasts, encouraging people to share New Year’s resolutions, at which point everyone rolls their eyes but joins in, just the same.
We have a New Year’s band. It isn’t very good, and I don’t recommend us, but we have one just the same. Susan leads on the guitar, joined now by Caryn’s daughter, Laura. Brad plays the piano or ukulele. Doug plays the bass. I figure out harmonies for songs and earnestly teach them to our singers, who either care or don’t care to learn them correctly. The lead vocals pass back and forth between Susan and my daughter, Julia. We sing “Sweet Caroline” and “Closer to Fine.”
When we are up for it, Susan, Julia and I manage 3-part harmonies, and deliver pretty good versions of “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” and “Uncle John’s Band.” I am never quite satisfied with the results (ex-music director that I am) and Julia is either eager to please or annoyed that I am not satisfied. We do this every year. At some point Julia and Susan’s daughter Sara stand up to sing “Loathing” from Wicked. Let us be clear that they have been performing this duet together since… I don’t know… since Wicked came out?
We drink. For each bottle of champagne opened, someone makes a toast. “Here’s to friendship!" “This is our 40th year of getting together” (that was last year). “Here’s to 2020 and a new decade!” (little did we know…)
“Here’s to Robby!” is said every year now. Robby is Caryn and Brad’s son, who died four years ago when he was 20. He loved New Year’s Eve, as do all of our children. He loved to play his drums (too loudly) for our makeshift band. “Let’s play “Psycho Killer!” Robby would proclaim.
"Not now, maybe later."
"No, let's play it now." He was insistent. I'm so glad now that he was insistent.
“OK, Robby” and we would play. Badly, but gamely, Doug’s bass thumping, me on the microphone, "You better run, run, run, run, run, run, run aw-a-ay."
Nothing has stopped this gathering of friends. We have weathered five weddings, six children, two divorces, six snarky adolescent growth spurts, and one unspeakably tragic death. Still, we have always gotten together. Our six children all love(d) New Years, and love(d) our quirky traditions. Nothing has stopped us until. . . COVID.
All year, I worried about the holiday. Once in September, Caryn began to raise the topic. “What about New Years?”
“I CAN’T TALK ABOUT NEW YEARS” I shouted, banishing the thought.
“OK, OK” she responded quickly, bemused at my distress.
But by October, it was clear that New Year’s would not happen. How could we bring three households together, plus five adult children? How could we enjoy our feast safely? How could we sing our songs in the living room, with the windows closed against the winter chill? We could not.
All across America, people sit in disappointment, unable to do their cherished activities with their cherished people. Or perhaps they are still doing their cherished activities, taking chances with their health and the health of others. Or perhaps, they have already lost their dear ones to this terrible pandemic, and their New Year’s won’t ever be the same again.
What brings me comfort is knowing that my friends are still here, and that New Year’s will rise again. Next year, freshly vaccinated, we will reunite, singing, cooking, and drinking. Next year we will play “Psycho Killer” and toast to Robby. Next year we will sing “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” and I still won’t be satisfied with the harmonies. Next year we will gobble those chocolate souffles. We will do all of this next year. And as much as we are always grateful for New Years, I bet we will be much more grateful upon our reunion. Nothing teaches gratitude like the loss of that which we love. But thank goodness, this loss is temporary.
May we all stay safe. May we all take care just a little while longer. We are almost there. Happy New Years! May this coming year be so much better.
The author's memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.