January 1st, 2024
By Bonnie Tarantino
I have a kaleidoscope of images from the last month called the holidays. I am glad to have them saved in my brain. Because I am visual it runs like its own snapchat feed. Maya has warned me, “I am not allowed to have snapchat because I am too old.” And truly it’s the last thing I need. Instead, I type it all in, time travel back in time and write things down to make them immortal and unforgettable.
It is day after Thanksgiving, the night where the picture on our latest Christmas card was taken. What you can’t see is that we are in a renovated barn in the Catskills NY celebrating my brothers 50th surprise birthday party. What you can’t see is that there are over 50 of us dancing and singing and tossing balloons and have conversations with each other that are in some cases 30 years overdue. What you can’t see is that just before we took the picture my nieces and nephews and kids were out in the freezing cold under a full moon smoking pot in a legal circle instead of like when my siblings were young and rounded up in the woods to sneak and hide. In the 80’s there was a war on drugs, pot was illegal, and, in my mind dangerous. It was not my scene. While I still keep a cautious eyebrow when I smell the tart oil burning through the now unbashful smoke, it does not scare me as it once did. In truth some of the kids who used to smoke pot, hiding in back corner of the high school tennis courts, are now inside this warm barn with arms around each other catching up about kids, dogs, work and wives. They made it through the war after all. The music stops for a bit and a birthday cake from Montreal is lit aglow with candles. We sing a hearty and full happy birthday and circle around my incredible brother in a ritual blessing of thanks. His community of honest and brave friends have been out for over 25 years now, have built families, hold a place in their communities and raise their children in a most considerate way. Their LGBQIA world feels solid and safe and tribe like tucked in this barn though they all have their eyebrows up and keep a careful eye. We pray they will never have to hide again.
Denis’ partner Luke of over 20 years and husband of 7 is hosting this party. They did not have a formal wedding but instead ran to city hall after Trump was elected office just to be sure they didn’t miss their chance to marry legally. Luke has thrown this party, inviting people from all over the country and from every era of Denis’ life. Luke is making a speech and suddenly it feels like a cathedral, like the wedding we missed, like we have all gathered at last to witness their sacred union. I record Luke’s speech on my phone and decide that it should go viral to show and teach those who just don’t understand that love like this is far more powerful than gender. Of course, I will never post it. It is their precious love story, but I have it saved in the cloud, a time capsule hanging by a thread in an invisible net hoovering in the air above me. I watch my kids’ faces through it and feel grateful that all they have known is that this love is natural. I can tell by the time Luke is done that my brother Denis is changed. He has walked through a secret threshold of power. He has claimed deeply that he is loved and safe beyond measure and that this love will never fail him. He is surrounded by family and friends from every stage and part of his incredible life. A light appears around him, a golden light marking his initiation. I know this light will lead him now on the next part of his journey. I will it to keep them all safe.
A little later a song comes on, “Son of a bitch…give me a drink…”. My family, all 16 of us, erupt on the dance floor slapping our hands and thighs in celebration of my dad who loves this song, drinks it in like the cold beer he can’t have, sings it with 30 years of sobriety under his belt. And for this we will always celebrate and thank him. My mother almost 80 is gorgeous in her blue jeans and joyful eyes. Her family is all together in a circle for all the world to see, her love story and life’s work bounces in a rhythm of its own to a heartbeat that only families like ours can hear. I pull back for a moment and take a picture of all the kids surrounding my brother jumping high in the air. No one is missing.
It is a quiet cold Wednesday night in December. My friend pulls up in my driveway and I am laying a tarp out in the back of my big family car that now only gets filled with groceries and Walter hoping for a trail walk or puppy chino. I already have the holiday music on in the car when Adriane jumps in. We head straight to the garden center before it closes. After years of dragging my family out for a fantasy Rockwell “find the perfect Christmas tree” moment, I have decided to be honest about the fact that I want to be the one to pick out the tree. My friend Adriane is the best person to help me do it. As a Jewish Orthodox woman, she delights in taking part in this holiday tradition. It marks our third year, and she says that makes it a Chazaka, meaning to make strong, or on the way to becoming a tradition. The Hebrew word sounds familiar while ancient to my musical ear. Each year we mix it up and try out different places to find a tree. Last year we drove all the way up to Pennsylvania so she could see a real Christmas tree farm. When we went to pay, we entered a little cabin shop filled with handmade gifts and hot cider, We can’t help but smell the cider but do not drink it because Adriane can smell things that are not Kosher but not enjoy or taste them. By the time we cross the state line back into Maryland we have a 9 foot tree laying the length of the car with its starless point resting on the dashboard. Along with this we randomly pull over and pay cash for a cord of wood for my fireplace. We haul each piece off the side of the road, placing them around the foot of the Christmas tree. When we are done there seems to be more tree than plastic in the car. It smells like a forest. Every now and then Adrian declares with delight, “We have a tree in the car! We have a real tree in the car and it smells like Christmas!”
This year we find the tree quickly. Adriane says a blessing over the tree, “Bless are you shehecheyanu, v’keyemanu, vehegeyanu, layman haze. Thank you for renewing us and for allowing us to reach this point.” Since meeting Adriane she has blessed everything we do and because of this my life has become far more tender and holy. We find a Starbucks and order Kosher hot chocolate and nestle in a corner seat. I draw pictures of the universe on napkins as she translates in Hebrew a word or two or line from the Torah that matches the complex new concept I am getting ready to teach in my next workshop. In another life I imagine us to be rabbis, sages, or theologians pouring over scrolls drinking a tea made of mushrooms. It occurs to me that perhaps more than likely in this other life we met in hiding to swap secrets from different esoteric paths in order to decipher codes that neither of us in our studies could decode without the other. This time though we are two women in a Starbucks whose magic lies in its slogan, a Siren, a mythical mermaid whose powers now include seducing millions into drinking her coffee. I am sharing the details of this workshop with Adriane because I know she won’t attend it. The Tarot crosses the esoteric line for her. Without delving into the cards, I share the lens I have found. With her I practice explaining the view I now have on reading energy. As I do the entire cosmos gets clearer and brighter and far more manageable since it is all fits neatly on the size of a small brown napkin. I imagine we have been doing this for possibly thousands of years. As we find the words, the napkins illuminate the eternal truth, that love is our one and only true love language and this is what the universe is undeniable made of when you break it down into its glistening pulsing parts between sips of Kosher hot chocolate. Before we leave Adriane slips the napkins like a secret scrolls into her pocket. I know she will keep them safe for lifetimes. Weeks later not a needle has fallen from the blessed tree.
This is the first year that Jack and Lucia will not be home to decorate the tree and wake up in their beds for Christmas. I understand at last why people decorate their trees on Thanksgiving and that is because you do everything you can when the kids are home because they may not be home in time to partake in what you once thought to be a timeless tradition.
Maya has hatched a plan. She will host a white elephant party for her friend group, I will make pesto and they will all decorate the tree. This motivates me enough to decorate the whole house. I had considered not doing much since I knew we were traveling this Christmas to see Jack in San Diego. I even said to Maya, “I don’t think I am going to put out the Christmas village” to which she said, “Oh really?” in such a way as to let me know it matters… it all matters. She is still home after all.
So the kids come in the house jiggling the bells I have on the front door. I hug them noticing how beautiful they all are in their Christmas hats and colors. I turn back to the kitchen and realized that I am not sure if Scott and I are invited to the table even though it is our table. Maya sets the table for 10 and not 12 and I wonder where we will sit. Then without me saying so, she sets two more plates, drags out more chairs and just says “You and dad have to sit with us.” And this feels like the kindest thing… to be invited to my own table.
The kids eat and laugh and talk and share about the updates on their college prospects. I ask them a question, “You are walking down the hall as a who you are now…coming toward you is your freshman self. What would you say to your freshman self?” Suddenly their conversations are profound. Now they are men and woman around the table, walking out the doors of the high school into the world. They are not the silly kids who walked in my house four years ago. They share that they would be much kinder to themselves and each other, far more accepting of others as they are and pay closer attention to the things that mattered. There is a moment when I think it sinks in. What they have is ending, changing and will never be the same. They should love each other as much as they can while they can.
They head off to throw ornaments on the tree. When they are done, there are no ornaments in the back of the tree and big heavy ones on the top. I consider fixing them the next day but throw a big ribbon around the whole thing instead. Scott and I get the cue from Maya that we can leave now as the presents are sure to be inappropriate. We head down to the barn to play golf and stay out of their way. A text comes in… “We are headed out… thanks Mom. Everything was great.” I know this isn’t the tradition I had in mind, but it is a moment they will take with them when they are scattered across the country and missing home. When we come up to the house we can see that they have cleaned up everything.
It is Christmas day, and we are in San Diego. Jack’s girlfriend is hosting us in her new home. Since arriving I have asked Zoe many times, “Would you like to have Christmas here at the Air b&b?” She has been very clear every time. “I’ve got it. I am good.”
And is she! We arrive to a patio lit with candles and fully set with festive red bows that keep cloth napkins fanned out on plates. Before our arrival Zoe and Jack shopped and cleaned, opened folded tables, spread tablecloths and counted chairs for all nine of us. For dinner there will be five Tarantino and four Hermans as Zoe’s parents and brother are also here for the holidays. The small apartment nestled 8 blocks from Jacks in Pacific Beach stretches out its walls to greet us with a perfect size Christmas tree and hanging stockings. I arrive with a plate or two of food to add to the feast and find the kitchen fully organized and spotless. I realize at this moment that Zoe is a clean counter girl. She has surpassed me in entertaining already. I move around in her kitchen with respect asking her exactly what she needs and sensing what she doesn’t before quietly leaving her to it. She’s got it.
A smaller table is aglow with appetizers carefully laid out. A festive holiday drink features red cranberries that fizzle and float in prosecco bubbles. Over the years, Zoe’s parents have become fast friends. It is as easy and warm as the candles that hint of pine. When we sit for dinner, we toast Zoe and Jack for a beautiful night. It feels like family, but love and family take time, so we hold back just enough to let this grow and learn and love. Under the table my feet tap a little, I reach for Scott’s hand. We want to rush in for them but know they are young; we must make room for every possible future just in case. I let go of Scotts hand and take a deep breath before digging in.
A few nights later we meet up with the Hermans again at the San Diego Botanical Gardens for Lightscape, an installation where they have transformed a mile long loop into a dazzling light display. When we arrive, our cars get separated in different parking lots and we realize that our families are on complete opposite entrances to the installation. The Hermans tell us to wait where we are and buzz through ½ mile of the path to find us. I imagine how trippy this must be for them as they fast forward through the cacophony of music and lights. While the Tarantinos wait, we find wine and sip it to the nutcracker playing off hidden speakers while blue and green cacti dance and leap in the shadows like ballerinas. When the Hermans do find us, it occurs to me how exciting it is to be found in an enchanted garden. We continue together slowly down the paths that take us through little pockets of wonder. At one point we end up in a forest filled with gold petaled lanterns and 15-foot mega size lilies lit up from within. Miley Cirus sings “I can buy myself flowers”. If you look closely it looks like the flowers are the ones singing. I tell Scott he must kiss me because it is perhaps the most beautiful rom com scene I have ever walked through. The music and his intentional kiss make my feet light. After that I can’t help but dance as I go. I look at the lot of us and realize that it is not just me, it is hard to resist the fields of vibrations and sound and color set against the backdrop of delicately tended gardens designed entirely to captivate. When we come to the end it seems we too are lit from within, pulsing with a luminous glow of adventure and wonder. I think how beautiful it is when two families really enjoy each other…meet in a garden to wander in delight, not knowing where it will lead.