Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Auld Lang Syne

When Karen and I first got married we did not go with her family down to Louisiana to visit her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, which is their family tradition.  At the time my mother was entering her last battle with cancer and we wanted to have one last holiday season with her.  We took some time off work and stayed with my family. We went to all of the usual holiday parties at the houses of our neighbors and friends. It was the first time I heard my mother say to a friend, “Karen is the gift my son brought home to me.”  We went to church on Christmas Eve and stayed up late playing games. We all woke up together and gave each other gifts. On New Year’s we celebrated with the people that are closest to us. I am really glad we got to spend that time together before Mom left us a couple of months later. 

The following year we celebrated Christmas with my family early and then Karen and I, along with our two best friends, boarded a plane to New Orleans for a short vacation before the holidays.  We stayed at a place called the Bienville House in the heart of the French Quarter. The rooms all had high ceilings, four-poster beds and velvet flocked wallpaper.  Our room was on the ground floor and had French doors leading to a little courtyard with a fountain.  Greg and Linda’s had an entrance to a large terrace that overlooked Decatur Street and the Storyville Theater.  We had a lot of fun on that trip.

In the morning, Greg and I would go collect newspapers and sit in the CafĂ© Du Monde talking until the girls were done getting ready for the day’s events.  Sometimes when we all felt like having some down time and hanging out at the hotel, I would take a chair from Greg's and Linda’s room out onto the terrace, or just sit on the wood-planked floor, and write in my journal until everyone else came out for cards and drinks.  These are my two favorite pictures from that time.

Explanations are required.  During that trip, one day we were all out on the terrace talking and I told my wife and my friends that if I could, I would one day be a writer.  My wife lied down on the ground and started laughing.  I said, “Honey, I don’t think it is nice that you are laughing at your husband.”  She said, “The reason I am laughing, Thomas, is that you already are. It doesn’t matter what you do for work. You have always been writer, and always will be one.” It was then that I realized I was extremely capable of making certain good choices in my life…like being with her.

When our vacation was over, Karen’s cousins from Georgia came through New Orleans, picked us up and took us north in the state where her family lives. We spent time there for awhile, enjoyed Christmas, and then went up to Shreveport to spend New Year’s with her aunt, Lisa. Lisa over time has become one of my best  and closest friends.  It was the first of many, many New Year’s Eves I spent in Shreveport.

New Year’s Eve in Louisiana is much different than it is in Chicago.  Because it is warm, fireworks are the order of the night.  You drive around Shreveport and on every corner is a stand that has been set up to expressly sell fireworks. The bigger they are; the better.  People spend hundreds of dollars on them. Lisa’s husband, Jeff, and I once constructed what he calls, “Redneck Fireworks,” that are composed of lots of PVC, bottle rockets, mortars and a really long fuse. At one point, when we first did it, Jeff told me to stand back.  He said, “I need you, man, to tell the news how this thing went horribly wrong.”  When it went off it was actually glorious in its beauty and its stupidity.

We have many traditions when we are at Lisa’s for New Year’s.  One is that my wife, Karen, must have sparklers.  Another is that on New Year’s Day we watch bowl games and movies, and that we eat cabbage, black-eyed peas and other things that symbolize good fortune in the next year.  My favorite tradition is to stay up late on New year’s Eve with Lisa talking, and then spend a little time thinking and writing.
On New Year’s Eve I always make four lists.  The first is of all the blessings I have received in the last year; the second is of all the things I could have done better; the third is my resolutions for making myself a better person, and the fourth is my goals for what I want to accomplish in the coming year.  Here’s what I do with these lists.  I look frequently at the first one and then ignore the others.  At some time in late February or March, when it gets a little warmer,I take a walk down by the river to think. I pull the last three lists I wrote at New Year’s out of my notebook, tear them into little pieces, and throw them into a garbage can as I head back to my car.  I learned a long time ago that you can always count your blessings but you can’t plan your life with lists. Life, like the river, is too fluid to do that.

I haven’t gone down to Louisiana during the holidays in a long time, although Karen and my daughter, Meredith, still go every year.  This started when my boys got older and wanted to be with their friends during the holidays.  After I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and a few feeble attempts, it became clear that I could not travel that far in a car.

For a few years on New Year’s I would go to Quigley’s and celebrate the Irish new year and then get home to make sure the boys partying did not get out of hand.   Now that the boys are all in college and have gone to the city where Ben lives, I will spend New Year’s relatively alone with no company other my dog, Lexi, and my thoughts.  I don’t mind that so much. Quiet has its merits. I visited friends and others have stopped by. One I like lot, Marko, invited me for afternoon drinks.  I will rest and then later tonight the neighbors are having a party. I will stop by there. It will be fun but it’s all not the same as being with my wife and children tonight. 

I have already started writing my meaningless lists. This year my first list, the blessings, had to go to another page or two because I have so many. The list of what I could do better is exponentially shorter, as is the list of my resolutions.  Whereas once I wrote a litany of things like: exercise more, drink more water, get better sleep, follow nutrition, etc.…now on the resolutions list there are only five items.

·         I resolve to accept that I can’t control the world or what has happened to me
·         I resolve to accept who I am now, my new identity, which is different than what I once was, but, despite challenges, is good
·         I resolve to do the very best with what I have to work with and pursue all my passions to good ends
·         I resolve to do my best to take care of myself so I can take care of others
·         I resolve to be an example of hope and joy for those around me

My list of goals is now at three pages. I’m sure I will add to those pages throughout the day and later tonight. Some of them are mundane, some are epic.  I think this year I will not go to the river. Instead, I will just keep this little notebook off to the side as a reminder that life is really good for me and this year will be an even better year than the last one was.

If I had some fireworks, I would probably light them off tonight.

Happy New Year’s, everyone, and God bless.  Your pal, T.S., the writer.