When Holidays Attack

An image of more sedate Memorial Day weekends, from vintageholidaycrafts.com

As is probably clear, given that this blog is devoted to rituals, traditions, and rites of passage, I thoroughly enjoy a good holiday. But I was just forced to acknowledge that there are certain holidays that cause some of us to run screaming in the other direction. I’m not talking about the holiday blues that beset many in the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, although those are definitely real. (When I taught academic writing at Columbia, we always got emails from the university health services warning us to watch our students for signs of stress as the fall semester wound to a close; going back home for the first time, clashing with the parents, staying in the childhood bedroom and often breaking up with the high school sweetheart are all triggers for potential collapse.)

I’m talking about holidays that take over your city, neighborhood and home, whether you’re feeling festive or not. The parents of my friends in New Orleans often flee the city during Mardi Gras, to avoid the traffic, the hurricanes (I mean the alcoholic, not meteorological, kind), and said hurricanes’ aftereffects on the hordes of tourists engaging in masked and/or topless revelry.

But I always thought that perhaps this was just being histrionic, that if one stayed home and took it easy, surely one could sit out any holiday from hell. And then I met Hip Hop weekend, which, apparently, takes place in my courtyard, in Miami Beach, over the Memorial Day holiday. Our super advised us that traffic to and from the beach would be at a standstill for three days. Again, I thought he was overreacting. But we had planned to get out of town anyway, to take advantage of my husband’s day off on Monday.

And then his grandfather came to town for a medical procedure (he’s fine now, thank God), so we decided to stay put. Still, there were signs that this would be a Memorial Day to remember, and not necessarily in a good way. On Friday morning, my mother-in-law, who was sleeping in our living room, was awaked at 6 AM by a young woman banging on the door asking if we had the clicker for the parking garage gate.

On Friday afternoon, I was working in the courtyard to avoid the exterminator fumes inside the apartment (he comes to our complex on the last Friday of every month), and found myself engaged in conversation with a gaggle of tall, gorgeous young women who were waiting on more friends to take a trip to the liquor store. A trip for which they dressed in bikinis, although our apartment is a good three blocks from the beach, and the liquor store even further.

“I play for the University of Miami,” said one of them, explaining that she and her friends had rented the apartment across the courtyard from us for the weekend. “But the girls across the hall play for Georgia.” I told her I had suspected they must be basketball players, they were all so tall. She looked pained, and I worried I might have offended her; maybe she didn’t think being tall was the amazing boon I consider it to be, imagining what it’s like to breathe the rarified air up there. Then she excused herself, stepped over to the palm trees and vomited at their roots.

The Grapes of Wrath, the 1940 film version

The co-ed rallied and made it to the liquor store. After witnessing the aftermath of the projectile vomiting, my husband packed up myself, his mother, and his grandfather and we hit the road, staying in one hotel Friday night, another on Saturday (there was no room at most inns, because it was Memorial Day weekend after all). We had all our relatives’ possessions in the car, not knowing when the doctor would give them the OK to return to Nicaragua. Driving around Miami, we  were like the Joads in Grapes of Wrath, only better dressed and with slightly less sun damage.

The nomadic life began to wear on me (and, being 28 weeks pregnant, I started to worry irrationally that I’d be called upon to breastfeed starving people camped out in barns, Grapes-of-Wrath-style; yes, this really happens in that summer-reading classic). So we returned to our place by Sunday, for the last night of Hip Hop weekend. I was awakened at 2:30 am by police sirens and at 5:12 by a car alarm, but otherwise, the night was uneventful. No more vomit. No more parking lot demands.

What upsett me about this Memorial Day weekend is not the vomit or the rootlessness, but the fact that it made me realize I’m old. I like to drink in the middle of the day on a long weekend, when I’m not wildly pregnant, that is. I like to share an apartment with a bunch of my galpals, even if they’re taller than I am, and better at free throws. But all of a sudden I’m the old pregnant lady worried that the music’s going to be too loud and everyone’s going to have too much fun, and I won’t be able to get to sleep at the reasonable hour of 10 PM.

So I was feeling ancient and tired and large and short and sorry for myself this Memorial Day. Until I read an op-ed in the New York Times, about the origins of the holiday. Apparently, it began after a number of spontaneous remembrances took place at the end of the Civil War, in honor of the war dead (yes, those men who trampled out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored). Arguably the most significant of these observances was a 10,000-person parade, made up mostly of free people of color, around a race course that had served as a prisoner-of-war-camp for Union soldiers in Charleston, South Carolina. Reading this article about the community coming together in a show of respect for the dead reminded me of why we celebrate Memorial Day–not to have a day off for mid-afternoon drinking but to honor those who came before us and who sacrificed, whether they are veterans who fought our wars, or the family members who laid the foundation for our lives (in Massachusetts, my relatives visit the cemetary over Memorial Day weekend, a nice tradition that drives no one from their apartment complexes).

The article left me inspired, sort of like Lenny after George tells him about the rabbits, only, one hopes, less heavy-handed (OK, so the Grapes of Wrath is not my favorite work of literature, but I still appreciate its strength as a piece of cultural and political criticism, I promise.). Papito is OK, I’m back in my vomit-free home, and I’ve realized that the beauty of being an old pregnant lady is that no one expects you to throw on a bikini and run to the liquor store. Or any place else. So, all in all, I’ve got a lot to be grateful for this Memorial Day–and it’s not just the fact that the weekend is over.

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