Nearer to Spring

My sister gave me six beautiful journals for Christmas yet here I am writing on the back page of the Southern Poetry Review. An old one, although strangely I cannot find the year, only the volume and issue (45 and 1). I suppose I could -- with a google search -- find out what year it was, but for now I'll be satisfied to know it was from at least 2002 as the front cover has a picture of birds in Central Park taken that year. 

It's New Year's Eve. I don't remember may New Year's Eves since having kids, though last year I do remember we were in Massachusetts. There was lots of snow. We went to a neighbor's party and had a Friendly's Jubilee Roll. I like to be absent during the crucial part of the event, to go to sleep before midnight. It just feels so comforting to me. Like a kid marched up to bed before all the real partying begins. Drifting off to sleep with the sound of muffled voices drifting up over the banister. Everything is okay. Other people are keeping watch.

When we were here as kids for New Year's Eve my grandmother Miriam would always set up these tray tables with snacks on them -- almonds, raisins (huge ones, I've never seen ones as big since -- she got them straight out of the vat at the "Farmer's Market" on 9th ave) and dried apricots. Lots of seltzer of course. She always bought us Chocolate ice cream pops, too. Really good ones; maybe Haagen Dazs, my sister would know. Dara always wanted to stay up but even back then I preferred to leave the show before the grand finale.

Later, once I moved to New York as an adult but before I had my own kids, on NYE there were parties, or bands playing, or me playing in bands. There were quiet nights, too, the friend who would occasionally throw a fashionable dinner party. As I got into my late 20s maybe there would be a guest at the party who looked distracted, kept checking her watch, had that weary, not quite present kind of presence and you'd find out later that they had kids at home. But mostly in the early years the parties or dinners were full of other people like me who had no intention of waking up before they were good and ready anytime soon. 

One year after those birds from the cover of the Southern Poetry Review Volume 45 Issue 1 flew in Central Park, I remember on New Year's Eve day I was working at InfoPro, a part-time job my brother-in-law got for me editing statistical reports. I don't know what data was being analyzed or who cared that it was, or if I did it's not coming back to me. I think my brother-in-law had already left the company but I was still there and one of the few people working on New Year's Eve. With part-time jobs you always end up working hours other people don't want to work. The afternoon felt so long and empty and disconnected with just me and one or two others poking around the office and feeling distracted because of what day it was. My plans weren't glamorous -- meeting my parents and grandmother for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Chelsea. There was the vague possibility of a party in Williamsburg after. I liked to keep plans open even if I knew I wasn't likely to follow through on them. It felt like tricking time, not agreeing to only a limited number of hours before the end of the year. Yes, after dinner I can haul myself out in the cold to post-industrial Brooklyn for a party. And I can stay home and be cozy and in my pajamas, lights out by 11:30 as well. Not one or the other. Both. Until, at a certain point in the evening, after the cheap white wine buzz wore off and as my mom hailed a cab and grandmother took my dad's arm and started walking up 9th, I would have to fold and concede that it was one or the other, and the evening really did have an end point, and 2003, for that matter, did too. 

But I wasn't at that place where the two roads diverged, yet. I was just stepping into the warm tiny Chelsea Cottage restaurant, taking off my scarf and laying it over my jacket on the back of the chair. Scooping up duck sauce with those dry noodles Chinese places don't seem to serve anymore. I had never been to that restaurant, and was thrilled as the waiter came around with a big jug of free white wine. Thrilled with the edamame, the tofu curry and pineapple cashew fried rice. After dinner my mom was going to meet my sister to go see Alvin Ailey afterward. And I had that possible Williamsburg party. But otherwise nothing was pulling on us and we were just where we wanted to be, where all day really I'd wanted to be. It was cheerful and bright and the guy kept coming around with the big jug of free white wine and filling up our glasses, all but my grandmother's. She focused on the tea, which had to be served at 212 degrees Fahrenheit and not a degree under. After dinner we read our fortunes and eventually we did have to go. I didn't go to Williamsburg I don't think but I don't remember really the rest of the night. 

That was ten years ago tonight. Chelsea Cottage became our go-to place for years. Eventually they stopped giving out free wine and then a few years after my grandmother died it was bought by new owners who re-arranged the little room and changed the menu (no tofu curry). We haven't ordered it in a while. Every now and then we do, I do, remembering back to that first night, like a relationship that started out with so promise. You keep wanting it to work. It is so disappointing each time you decide to give it a try and have to remind yourself, no, no, it's just not good anymore. 

Jan 3
On the last day of last year, I went to bed before midnight, just barely, but still in time. Today we had a snow day. I typed in the pages from the journal. Hopefully my parents have received the car keys I mailed to them on New Year's Eve, the ones I accidentally pocketed and brought from Massachusetts. I can't wait to begin writing in the six new journals (six geese a layin') my sister got me. So many! So many blank pages. So many stories to tell. The holidays are over now; the tree will have to go to turn into mulch soon, the Santa Claus soaps packed away, less one risk the gaucheness of decorations in mid-January. The holiday cards too, will eventually come down. I'll save the photographs, recycle the rest.

A card came in the mail a week or so ago for my grandmother. "From All of Us at The Law Offices of Brian A. Raphan". On the front is the Manhattan skyline with fireworks over it and the words "Happy New Year". Wishing someone who died in 2008 a "happy, healthy and prosperous" 2014. Is it funny? Sad? Good fortune, to have to this message to her, as if from her, these five and a half years later? Is it somehow hopeful to wish her a happy new year? Like the birds circling on the front of that Southern Poetry Review, like the fragments of stories I jot down inside journals where my writing has never been printed. Are the birds that in winter remain behind supposed to be here, or have their migration patterns changed because of global warming? Are the ones that sing above us in the North on dark December days confused? Missing a signal? Yes we are nearer to spring than we were in September, but not that near. Should they be further south? Or maybe, just as likely, they are the ones that have always stayed, resilient, ready to fight, like Miriam venturing out on that cold December night at 88 years old, unafraid of cold or snow, able to endure.

I heard a bird sing/In the dark of December/A magical thing/And sweet to remember./"We are nearer to Spring/Than we were in September,"/I heard a bird sing/In the dark of December.
Oliver Herford


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