YOU CAN LOVE IT OR YOU CAN HATE it, but you can't avoid what many of us regard as the most dreaded night of the year: New Year's Eve.
Nor is it likely you can avoid the self-pity that comes when you have to answer that wrenching, cosmic question -- "What are you doing New Year's Eve?" -- with the saddest, one-word response of them all: "Nothing."
There may be people in the world who have no hang-ups about spending this land mine of an evening alone at home or sitting solo in the last row at a midnight movie. Such people may exist. But if they do, I personally do not know them.
With its heavily weighted connotations of only-losers-spend-New Year's Eve-alone, it is a night that offers everyone -- young or old, hip or un-hip, attached or unattached -- the equal-opportunity experience of feeling left out in the cold while the rest of the world happily parties on.
But the odd thing is, you don't actually have to be alone on New Year's Eve to experience such an emotion. You can have this left-out-and-nobody-loves-me feeling even as you dance your feet off and sip champagne with dozens of friends at a gala party. And, all of us, I bet, have felt the sting of spending New Year's Eve in the company of someone other than the one you long to be with.
But once in a while everything seems to fall into place on New Year's Eve and, for the rest of your life, you remember the evening as perfect and magical. Such are the memories I hold -- and cherish -- of a long-ago New Year's Eve:
I am about 8 years old and the sounds of the party downstairs have awakened me. I hear my mother's laugh and my father's voice floating above the noise of the crowd gathered downstairs to celebrate the New Year. Still half-asleep I put on my coat, creep down the stairs, through the kitchen and out onto the back porch.
It has snowed earlier and the moonlight pours down on the glazed crust of ice that covers the grass. I watch as our black-and-white cat, Mittens, walks delicately on top of the ice, his tail plumed up toward the stars, his paws breaking through the thin ice on every third step or so with a crisp, crunching sound. In the garden a young birch tree, its branches weighed down with silvered sheaths of frozen rain, forms a perfect, silver arc against the dark blue of the night sky.
More memories come even as I write:
Standing on the back porch I listen as all up and down the alley, neighbors call their dogs in from the cold: Blackie. Pepper. Tiny. Rusty. I picture each of them -- cold, black noses and wet paws -- rushing up the steps and into the warmth of familiar kitchens.
Inside my house, I hear the party growing louder. People are counting: Five, four, three, two, one, Happy New Year! They begin to sing. And then, suddenly, my father is at my side; he is picking me up, hoisting me into the air in a joyous flight toward the stars.
Perhaps the moment included my mother. Or my brother. Or my grandmother. I don't know. Only my father's face, backlit by the moon, swims in mem-
ory: smiling, strong. It is cold but I don't feel anything but my NTC sudden flight up, up, high, higher in my father's arms, lifted toward the stars. That and happiness.
They're gone now -- my father and mother and quite a few of those people who were there the night a young girl stood beneath a starry New Year's sky listening to the crunch of a cat's paw and the ice creaking in the birch tree. But they will creep back tonight on New Year's Eve -- my friends, my family, all those who are gone -- in memory.
And it seems fitting somehow to welcome back their ghosts at a time when the old year gives way to the new; to remember the people I loved and what I loved about each of them; to call up from some deep repository the memories of a face, a voice, a smile, a gentle spirit, a burning presence.
And as each comes forth I remember the light that shone out of them:
Nancy, Shelby, Maggie, Robbie, little Tania, Jean, Ed, Sarah, Margaret and many more. In my life, I called them by other names: mother, father, grandmother, friend, baby. They are gone -- along with the cat who walked on ice and the dogs named Blackie, Pepper, Tiny and Rusty.
My family and friends, in memory.
In my life I loved them all.