For 20 years I hated the coming of the New Year. I had married a man whose only real tradition was a New Year's Day omelette party he had given since 1974. He'd lived in Boston then, and for some reason that was never fully explained to me, the event was called the Duck Pond. Or maybe his house was called the Duck Pond, I really don't know. I'm sure it says something about me that I never bothered to get it straight despite our two decades together. But it says something about the event, too.
The entire time we were together, my holidays were overwhelmed by preparations for NYD. The month before, we argued about what had happened to the most recent guest and shopping lists. There was the pressure to come up with a clever invitation, typically based on a movie (e.g., "A Few Good Eggs" the year of "A Few Good Men," "Eggz" the year of "Antz" and last year's takeoff of "Borat," "Omlat.") We could never go out on New Year's Eve because we were cleaning the house and prepping food. There was general anxiety and pressure about entertaining the hordes. And that was before the event itself, which completely ground me to dust. I'm a good sport and an enthusiastic hostess, but this was one party I just couldn't get behind.
The first year his NYD impacted me was 1988. After knowing each other through business for several years and dating for six months, we had gotten engaged. He'd told me he didn't speak to his mother, which worked for me, but then invited her to NYD. I can still see her gliding up the front walkway like a pink battleship in her St. John suit. She brought us a box of See's candy that was infested with ants. The two of them acted like they had spoken a week earlier even though it had been years and she hadn't even RSVPed. The whole thing freaked me out, but what could I do? She was in my life and there she remained, on and off, until her death a few years ago.
From the beginning NYD was difficult for me. While I always had some input on the guest list, the day was overrun with his business associates and acquaintances. He would invite a salesclerk who waited on him during his Christmas shopping, or a friendly waiter. He invited people he described as friends, but whom we never saw the other 364 days of the year. I can think of many who showed up every year for two decades yet never once invited us out to dinner, much less to a party at their house.
Every year the party grew. We had about 50 people in 1988 and 200 last year. Many were the times I would ask my husband who someone was, only to have him tell me, "I thought you invited him." We had friends of friends. Heck, we had friends of acquaintances and probably even acquaintances of acquaintances. We had some people who told their friends to stop by, then never showed up themselves. One year, the party made the front page of the Wall Street Journal. It was completely out of control.
In time I came to see NYD as a dysfunctional networking event. People showed up to see who else was there, not to visit with us. I caught them looking at the bottom of the china in my china cabinet and I'm sure they were rifling through our medicine cabinets. A couple of years ago I roped off the stairs to keep people on the first floor and watched as guest after guest stepped over the rope.
One year we had our kitchen remodeled and due to the inevitable delays, the work was finished on New Year's Eve. We spent the night bringing dishes back in from the garage, washing everything and putting it away before we could start grating cheese and chopping mushrooms. I vividly remember taking a break to hose down the back patio in the dark, sobbing with exhaustion.
One year we were building a pool in the backyard and put up a sign asking people not to go back there. It had rained the day before and the construction site was muddy. People opened the gate with the sign on it and walked right through. A couple of years ago it rained on New Year's Day in Los Angeles for the first time in 50 years. Our invitation clearly said the party would be cancelled in the event of rain. Almost 100 people showed up anyway, saying they thought the rain would end soon. (It didn't.)
One year, I actually convinced my husband to forgo the party. It was a few months before we planned to start our kitchen renovation, and I was able to convince him to take a year off. We made plans to go to the movies and were walking out the door when guests showed up. This was back before we switched to email, and three separate groups said they figured their invitations had been lost in the mail. We had virtually no food in the house, but sure enough he ran to the store for eggs and served them. No movie after all.
But my favorite story (in a horrible, can-you-believe-it way) came from a few years ago. I was in the kitchen frantically refilling platters when two women entered, looking around. "Do you know what they paid for this house?" one asked the other. "It depends whether they bought it at the bottom of the market or the top," was the response. I looked over at these strangers and said, "I know what they paid for the house." Disdainfully one asked, "How would YOU know?" "Because it's my house," I said. "Oh, and it's beautiful!" the other answered, without missing a beat.
After that, I told my husband I was done. He could hire caterers and a party planner and a cleanup crew, but I would not be spending my holidays preparing to entertain 200 strangers who wanted only to make business connections and peer more closely into our personal life.
This year, for the first time since 1988, New Year's Day was issue-free for me. In honor of our separation, I did suggest "Atonement" as a movie he might consider for his invitation spoof. Instead, he went with "No Reservations." He said he scaled it back this year, which I had begged him to do since the early '90s. But he couldn't end his tradition. He had the party at his new place, with his new girlfriend, and I dropped off our son to spend the day.
I started a new tradition of my own: reading by the fire and a long hike with a dear friend. Now that's a good start to a year.
Originally published January 1, 2008