New Year’s morning always seemed a little cleaner and brighter than other mornings. The air in my bedroom was thinner and even though I knew the tiled floor would be cold against my feet I catapulted from bed. There wasn’t a sound in the house as I made my way down the short hall to the kitchen and I knew it was important to keep it that way.
There it was. The table full of party finery – glittery ice blue hats, cone-shaped metallic horns with spaghetti-like paper streamers off the end, crank noise makers that would need to wait until later. I found it hard to decide which one to pick up first, which color of tissue-paper decoration I liked best – the hot pink, the silver, the banana yellow. And all on our pragmatic formica table in the middle of our square kitchen and just for me. I scrunched my toes under and sat at my accustomed place at the table, surveying the kingdom of wonder in front of me.
My father was a musician. He played the standing bass in a dance band. He played most weekend nights at weddings, bar mitzvahs or other events. I was accustomed to being home alone with my mother on Saturday nights. We might go shopping or run errands with my father during the afternoon but we always needed to be home by five so that my father could change into one of his many black dinner jackets and make it to the hall in Brooklyn or New Jersey on time. I often watched him angle the bass in its brown canvas cover up the basement steps from the back of our house and shift it into the back of our Ford station wagon. I’d seen him do it so many times I felt sure I could properly place the instrument in the car by myself, even though it stood a good foot and a half taller than I was. I knew exactly how it needed to nestle into the back of the car, leaving just enough room for me to curl my legs under myself and sit with it in the flattened backseat if I wanted. Even as he left our warm house in the wintry air I knew, maybe from the set of his shoulders and the tune he was humming, maybe from other things an eight-year-old can pick up, that my father didn’t mind being away from us so many evenings. In fact, I was pretty certain that he lived for these dates. It didn’t bother me. I didn’t think it was a sign of dissatisfaction with me. My mother, perhaps. But even for her, I think it was more of a turning to something he could never get enough of than a turning away from something he’d had for maybe too long.
There is a photo of my father and me when I was a baby. My father is sitting in the corner of my grandmother’s kitchen, the half wood paneled wall behind him with a narrow view of the contrasting Pennsylvania Dutch patterned wallpaper. It’s late at night – he is still wearing his tux. I am just a few months old, perched on his knee, alert and with a surprisingly erect back. I am looking directly at the camera, unblinking, but my father is looking down at the top of my head, with a half smile. Even though I obviously don’t remember it I can summon the smell of that moment. The starch of his shirt, the residue of metal strings on his fingers, the yeasty beer smell.
On New Year’s Eve, my mother would buy something a little special for us to eat. Maybe she would make pigs in a blanket in the toaster oven or we’d put squares of Jarlsberg cheese on crackers. I was allowed to stay up as late as I wanted and certainly past midnight. We sat in the living room watching the television. I don’t remember what was on before they would show the crowds in Times Square or Guy Lombardo at the Waldorf Astoria. I sipped ginger ale from a cold can and thought about what I would wear if I went to a party like I saw on television. I wanted to know what it felt like to be there when the confetti and streamers fell down from the ceiling. Early in the evening my mother was talkative, telling me about New Year’s Eves in her youth, during the war, when she was a teenager and would go see Jimmy Dorsey at the Paramount. I don’t remember her ever drinking anything on these evenings, even though she did have a private stash of Canadian whiskey in the linen closet. We didn’t have a bar or liquor cabinet so I didn’t think that was weird. In fact, it made sense to store the bottle of brown liquid between the extra sheets where it wouldn’t break.
As it got closer to midnight, we got quieter. I sat with the cat in my lap watching the freezing people in Times Square, glad for my flannel nightgown, glad for the hissing radiator under the window. My mother sat in the sofa, her legs tucked under her, her ashtray on the arm. She picked at the cuticle on her thumb and watched TV.
She would usually just make one comment. “Don’t marry a musician.” She never warned me against being a musician myself.
At midnight, we didn’t move. We sat, a tableau, and watched the ancient dance band perform its quavery, watery version of Auld Lang Syne. We didn’t say anything, didn’t move to give each other a hug or a kiss. I don’t remember even any heartfelt sighs from my mother. When I got tired, around one in the morning, I went to bed, dreading how cold the sheets would feel for that first moment when I climbed in, hoping the cat would want to settle down near my feet. But I knew that in the morning I would find the treat my father would bring in the middle of the night – his arms full of glittery nonsense as he made a second trip to his car, after securing his instrument, his livelihood, and getting on the road, perhaps the only driver on the road at three in the morning who’d had nothing more than one glass of beer through the long evening. Doing what he was born to do.