New Year’s Eve in the mansion means a party. Your mother makes a party like no other. She invites everyone she knows, family friends, friends of friends, neighbors and anyone she meets with no other place to go for the evening. For a week, she cooks up a storm and buys all sorts of wonderful delicacies that you never have any other day, like smoked oysters, shrimp cocktail and fancy olives. Her culinary skills are legendary and few people turn down an invite for the opportunity to eat at your house. Snow or no snow, the long, curved, gravel driveway is always lined with cars from end to end.
Made for entertaining, the mansion’s cavernous rooms easily accommodate a crowd. The layout provides a smooth flow of traffic in and out of the dining room, where all the food is arranged on the huge dining table and sideboard. Adult beverages are available, important to you only because, when no one is watching, you and your next older brother go around sampling whatever remains in the discarded cocktail glasses. You are particularly excited when you find a maraschino cherry marinating. Your grandmother from New York, who lives with you temporarily, calls you a “little schicker” when she catches you.
Grandma, who during the day makes you help her tend her TV bingo cards spread out all over the piano bench, plays the accordion, albeit with a repertoire limited to Fantasia and a variety of polkas. Your grandmother is Polish, as are all of her friends, most of whom she meets playing bingo. They all become your mother’s friends, too, and attend the big party each year. Everyone polkas, including the kids and the otherwise stuffy adults. You are allowed to invite a friend, too, presumably to keep you out of the way for the evening. You and your friend fill up on food, make the rounds hunting for change dropped from pockets or lodged in chair cushions, play with your little brothers until they go to bed and annoy the adults.
Grandma is in her element, the center of attention with her accordion. She plays and the guests dance. Occasionally, someone has a little too much fun, like the gentleman who dances with such great abandon that his false teeth fly from his mouth to the floor. He is the father of eight kids. They are very religious and he is determined to father 12 children for the Church. His poor, worn-out wife has other ideas. For all their strict compliance and discipline, one daughter ends up having a baby at 16 and later, sadly, you hear the couple has finally divorced. For the time being, though, they dance their hearts out as his teeth take flight. The music and dancing cease while he searches for his missing chompers. He finds them, dusts them off, pops ’em back in and the reveling continues.
Your friend’s parents come to pick her up at 11:00. You insist on staying up until the clock strikes 12:00 to enjoy the celebration with the guests. Your little brothers have been asleep for hours and you are feeling very grown up. You can barely contain your excitement as the clock counts down and a chorus of “Happy New Year!” erupts to herald the advent of another year. Though most of the guests leave soon after, a few close friends stick around to visit and help with clean-up. Your mom sends you up to bed, but instead of going all the way to your room, you perch up at the top of the stairs, just out of sight, listening to the grownups talk, afraid you might miss something. You doze off before too long.
Around 2:00, the sound of a motor starting and the crunch of tires on gravel as the last guest leaves awakens you. The house becomes quiet and dark as your parents go from room to room turning out the lights. The tree lights twinkling cast a soft, colorful glow about the living room. Noises are still coming from the kitchen as your parents finish cleaning up. You pad drowsily down to your room at the end of the hall and climb into bed once the tree lights go dark. Mom and Dad are coming up to bed. It’s been a long, exciting day, but even the radiator hissing and all the odd creaks and groans of this big, old mansion, as it settles for the night, won’t keep you awake.