Though born in raised in New York City, my family background is from the South. Or as I sometimes joke, I am from South Cackalaky (a colloquialism for South Carolina) via the South Bronx. My Yankee/Dixie mix is apparent in my daily life, but more so around the holidays where part of my Christmas Day meal this year consisted of Italian (baked ziti), Spanish (yellow rice) and Southern (pork shoulder) cuisines.
As we rapidly approach the very end of 2016 I am now reminded of a different tradition — how one must start off the very first day of each year. With variances for local and/or home preferences the checklist is as follows:
New Year’s Day Prep Southern Style:
- New mop and broom.
— One does not bring last year’s dirt into a new year.
- A man must be the first one to come into to house.
(2a. That man must have money in his pocket.)
— Usually, this was the man of the house, who would walk out the back door, if available, then enter through the front door.
- Everything must be clean. Your clothes, your linen, your home, you.
— A continuation of not bringing in last year’s dirt into a new year – starting after Christmas, the home gets a scrub down. For some homes, the parts of the house that would be seen by any company that may happen to come calling was enough. For others, the home is cleaned stem to stern within an inch of its inanimate life. Then once everything was cleaned, it was time for everyone to get clean. Hair washed, toe nails clipped, root-to-toot clean.
- Prepare the good luck meal of Pork, Black Eyed Peas, and Collard Greens.
— Though generally a ham, it can be any kind of pork, but it must be pork. Black-eyed peas, on its own or mixed with rice. Collard/Kale/Mustard Greens, or any combination thereof, rounds out the holy trinity of culinary tradition.
All of the above, if followed properly, was presumed to be an assurance of a healthy and prosperous year ahead for you and your family.
So after all that – speaking solely from personal experience – considering the fucked-up, not even close to putting the fun in dysfunction people I was blessed to have to shape my young life, all I can say of all that is BULLLLLLL SHIIIIIIIIIIIIT!
After all, these traditions were ones passed down from families who lived in or were a part of private homes. As poor tenement dwellers, this premise was a glass cliff from the start.
- A new mop and broom: Unless it somehow was no longer usable during that week, my mother held on to mops or brooms until the last strands or straws fell off. Who could afford to waste money replacing perfectly good items?
- A man must be the first one to come into to house (and have money in his pocket). The only way this could occur is if my father went out for New Year’s Eve and drunkenly stumbled in the door first by happenstance. If there was something needed from the store we could not wait for him to get up first, for if he was home at midnight that meant he did not have any money to go anywhere the night before. So much for money in his pocket. Not to mention, we lived in a tenement, duh! There was no back door to go out of in order to come in a front one. And he damned sure was not getting out of bed and getting dressed to walk out of a door -only to walk back in again- just to satisfy some tradition/superstition. More often than not, I was usually the first person to cross the threshold on the first day of the year.
- Everything must be clean. As an only child and a female, with a father who lifted nothing other than a fork or a liquor bottle, the totality of this cleanliness ritual fell to my mother and I. As I got older the brunt of it was on me. The days between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day were bloody torture for me. I do not exaggerate when I say bloody as my knuckles often became cracked and raw from the constant scrubbing with bleach, ammonia, Lestoil, Pine Sol and hot water as I cleaned. And don’t you dare ask whether I used gloves. Despite years of seeing others, yes white women, doing so on television and in movies, I was well into my teens before it even became a thought in my head as something I could do for myself. The one time I actually brought it up, my mother looked at me with much disdain. “What? You think you too precious to touch water?” The use of gloves was never brought up again.
- The good luck meal. Since ham was made for Christmas, in my mother’s kitchen the pork part of the tradition was almost always in the form of chitterlings and hog maw (the smaller intestines and stomach lining of a pig, respectively, cooked for food). If you have no idea whatsoever of what I speak, my God I how I envy you and wish I shared the wonderful bliss of your ignorance! Years after I left home, the smell of bleach and ammonia combined -something everyone knew you should not mix, yet everyone did exactly that back then- would immediately take me back to New Year’s Day when my mother’s kitchen was an olfactory assault of cleaning products and offal stench as my mother spent a good hour or so at the sink cleaning the -ahem- meat before cooking it. Once I was whipped and not allowed to eat anything if I did not eat everything was cooked for the house for New Year’s Day. I took the beating and went hungry for two days because I refused to let that nastiness cross my lips. The only reason I did not starve for three days was because winter break was over and school had started again where I ate breakfast and lunch. I still was not allowed to eat dinner at night. This stalemate lasted until all of the chitterlings was gone and something else was cooked that I was willing to eat. This whipping and starving routine were repeated several times over a couple of years before I was taken seriously and allowed to eat only what I wanted. I just realized, I was only ten when I first defied my mother like that. That was truly the precursor to what was coming down the pike – but I digress.
Each January 1st this plague of tradition fell on our apartment with the hopes of a better new year. I presume as we did not follow the rules to the letter, three hundred and sixty-five/six days later, the January 1st of the new year found us just as miserable and poor as it found us January 1st of the previous one. So what was the point? Suffice it to say, when I became the matriarch of my own household, things went a lot differently for New Year’s Day. At least I thought so.
As I look back on it now, it really was not all that different. I have enough south in me that each time I have moved I purchased new mops and brooms to not bring old dirt into a new place. Yet, like my mother, I do not purchase new cleaning implements each year. With two sons to run to the store if necessary, plus my late-husband –having a man being first to come through the front door, with money in his pocket, was almost a given. If someone non-male somehow cross the threshold first – whatever. Granted, while whatever place we called home was not always white-glove spotless, it was clean – except perhaps for my younger son’s room, depending on his mood, that is. And as I was the one in the kitchen, I cooked any damned meal I felt like cooking that day. As I am now a single woman whose adult sons are out on their own, even that much of the tradition is just a memory. Yet, I am living better and happier than I ever have in spite of it.
The closest I come to preparing for the new year is in my spirit. I fully believe how I find my heart at the stroke of midnight is what guides the rest of my year. The years I started off depressed, pretty much remained so. The years I started off on a good foot, stepped on accordingly. As for this year, I admit my bank account needs some serious replenishing, but I can keep a roof over my head, pay my bills, not starve and still have something of a life on my own. It’s going to be a long while before I can globe hop again the way I did last year, but I will be able to travel a little this year. Yet all of those things are material. Most important is that I am content. I am happy with myself. I am happy within myself. I am prepared for some new craziness/challenges with this new year, but I am also looking forward to seeing what new joy/beauty/happiness 2017 will bring.
What better way to start?
Writing Our Lives #52essays2017 challenge.
A year-long weekly personal essay/memoir/creative nonfiction writing challenge. To learn more about this challenge or to participate, check out Vanessa Martir’s website and learn about it.
And let’s see how others are slicing this first week of 2017:
Slice of Life Writing Challenge|Two Writing Teachers