I grew up spending New Year’s Eve with my crabby, Italian American grandmother, Mama Rose, waiting for Guy Lombardo to ring in the new year and sing Auld Lang Syne on television. As soon as the final chorus ended, Mama Rose refilled her glass of apricot brandy and said, “Go to bed now. It’s next year.” After watching high society dressed in sparkly gowns and tuxedos at the glamorous Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City on TV, I always went to bed feeling disappointed and deflated.
Out in the real world, people were having fun, drinking champagne, kissing and dancing. Even my parents. They would leave in the afternoon to celebrate with other couples at the Ramada Inn in Seekonk, Massachusetts, about 20 miles from home. I watched my mother as she packed a shiny satin dress, elbow-length gloves, high heels and a bouffant-style wig in her American Tourister overnight bag for the dinner-dance that night, and a camel hair suit with a cashmere sweater and a wig styled into a flip for the buffet breakfast the next morning.
They came home with stories of the steamship round of beef sliced tableside, the flutes of champagne and the fancy dresses and jewelry everyone wore, and I just sighed and wondered how many more New Year’s Eves I’d have to spend with Mama Rose and Guy Lombardo.
Naive New Year’s expectations
Time passed, of course, and the year I was 15, I had a boyfriend. Surely New Year’s Eve with green-eyed, dreamy Mark would be as romantic as I imagined. But December was going by without any mention of New Year’s Eve plans. Finally, I asked him if we were going to do something together to celebrate. A party? A fancy dinner? A sleigh ride in the snow? Mark looked puzzled. He hadn’t thought much about it, he admitted. “Well, start thinking!” I told him. Now that I had a boyfriend, I was practically required to have fun on Dec. 31. I had to dress up. We had to kiss at the stroke of midnight.
A few hours after my parents went to the Ramada Inn in Seekonk, Mark arrived with a bottle of Manischewitz wine pilfered from his parents’ liquor cabinet. Mama Rose had made spaghetti and meatballs, and we sat at the kitchen table, eating and sipping the overly sweet wine. Then we migrated to the living room where we watched Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians with Mama Rose, holding hands, with at least one of us feeling miserable.
By the next year, Mark and I had broken up, and I didn’t have another real boyfriend for almost a decade. Every New Year’s Eve, my friends and their dates would go to parties or nightclubs in glittery clothes. “See you next year!” they would say on their way out into the future as I stayed behind, often with the other dateless friends, watching old movies and pretending it wasn’t the most romantic night of the year.
When I worked as a TWA flight attendant after college, I happily offered to work New Year’s Eve, handing out free champagne to passengers unlucky enough to have to travel that night. On layovers in foreign cities, it was easy to forget that it was time for Auld Lang Syne.
But then, in 1983, at age 26, I met Josh on a flight from San Francisco to New York, and fell so hard in love that I believed this would be the New Year’s Eve I’d always expected — the one where a handsome man would kiss me at midnight and we’d clink champagne glasses and begin a new year together. All the promise of that night was going to finally be mine.
Josh was an aspiring actor who worked as a bartender at a restaurant on New York City’s Upper East Side, that 1980s kind with pale wood and lots of ferns. I wondered if we’d have dinner there, maybe with some of his theater friends, or if we’d go to a party near downtown. “I thought I told you,” Josh said when I asked him about our plans, “I volunteered to work. Everybody else has big plans, and I don’t really care about it.”
Here I was with a bona fide, grown-up boyfriend, and once again without a date or a plan. “What do you mean you’re just staying home?” my mother gasped during our regular Sunday phone call. “It doesn’t matter,” I lied. “But it does! It’s New Year’s Eve!” she said, as if I didn’t know. By then my parents had stopped celebrating at the Ramada Inn. But still I was shocked when they showed up at my apartment door with a bottle of prosecco that evening, having driven four hours to New York City to be with me. “We were not going to let you be alone,” my mother said.
We would go to a fancy place and celebrate in style, I decided. We would have a glamorous Manhattan night on the town. Until I tried to get a reservation. Anywhere. I called all of my favorite trendy restaurants, then the not-so-trendy ones, then the local neighborhood places. Nothing. Even Josh couldn’t squeeze us in at his restaurant. “Are you kidding? We’ve been full for over a month,” he said. Deflated, I suggested my go-to Mexican place, Tortilla Flats. It was off the beaten path, way out in the West Village. But the margaritas came by the pitcher, and they had Christmas lights up all year. “It’s festive,” I told my parents — and myself.
That New Year’s Eve was one of the coldest on record. Luckily, we got a taxi right on my corner, and were deposited at Tortilla Flats. The wind whipped across the Hudson. Our teeth chattered. There were no cars, no people in sight, just my parents and me. I pulled on the door to the restaurant. It didn’t budge. I pulled harder. “Is it closed?” my father asked, looking at the desolate street. “Not on New Year’s Eve!” my mother chirped hopefully. I futilely pulled again, wondering how we were ever going to find a taxi back to my apartment where we would call for Chinese takeout and I would once again have a sad New Year’s Eve.
I was thinking about muggers, dark streets and my bad luck, when suddenly the door flew open and a surprised, curly-haired man stepped out. “You’re open!” I said, resisting the urge to hug him with relief. “No, sorry. I gave my staff the night off so they could go have fun,” he said. I think I harrumphed. Fun. “We came all the way from Rhode Island so she wouldn’t be alone tonight,” my father explained. The man studied us. I could tell he pitied me, out with my parents on New Year’s Eve.
“My other restaurant is open,” he said finally. “I’ll take you there and be sure you get a table.” He motioned for us to follow him into a van parked around the corner. It probably was not a good idea to get into a stranger’s vehicle on a dark, empty street. But we were desperate, and true to his word, 15 minutes later, we were eating alligator at his Cajun restaurant.
Making new resolutions
That was the night I gave up my childish expectations of the holiday I had come to dread and maybe even hate a little. That was the night that I realized I had two people who loved me so much that they drove 200 miles to be with me. I had a boyfriend pouring chablis uptown who didn’t need New Year’s Eve to show me how he felt. Why had I held on so long for some idealized version of this one night, when all along I’d had everything I needed just about every day?
Many New Year’s Eves have come and gone since, and I’ve gone to parties alone or with dates. I’ve even thrown a few. But mostly I make a nice dinner, pour a glass of wine and spend it with the people I love doing things we love: making jigsaw puzzles, watching old movies, reading books, playing games. And I’ve never again been disappointed.
My father died 25 years ago; my mother five years ago. I can’t even recall how many times we talked about that New Year’s Eve we spent together, stranded in the frigid weather on an empty street, saved by a guy in a van. Whenever it came up, one of us always said, “That was the best New Year’s Eve ever.”
By coincidence, I now live five doors down from Tortilla Flats. Shortly before it closed in 2018, I was walking past, remembering that night with my parents, missing them, when the door opened and out stepped a man with curly gray hair.
I stopped. “Are you the owner?” I asked him.
He told me he was. “I’ve always wanted to thank you for something,” I said. “A long time ago, my parents and I came here on a really cold night.”
His face brightened. “It was New Year’s Eve,” he said.
“You remember that?”
“I’ll never forget how they’d come to spend it with you,” he said.
“Neither will I,” I said.
And for a moment, I heard the wind howling, felt the cold air and saw my parents’ young faces lit by the holiday lights flashing in the window. I had everything I needed that New Year’s Eve. And I’ve never needed more than that. This New Year’s Eve, as my husband and I stay home together happily, I’ll drink a cup of kindness, dear, for the sake of auld lang syne.
Ann Hood is the author, most recently, of the memoir Fly Girl about her years as a TWA flight attendant.
Renew your membership today and save 25% on your next year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.