Thursday, November 23, 2006

You Wanna Hold His Hang at the Thanksgiving Day Parade

You are safe.

Today, the wind gusts decide to cooperate with Macy’s helium balloons.

But the parade route makes your routine visit to Strawberry Fields impossible; besides, it’s raining.

You shrug and grin at the crowds and think:

You are family.

You see a little girl dancing, splashing in a puddle. She gets you a little wet, and you laugh. She looks at you: shy then friendly then embarrassed then uncertain. The child turns away from you.

You go to the Utopia diner on Broadway for coffee. You sit next to another solitary diner at the counter. He invites you to read over his shoulder the NYT Metro pages.

You read an article about the sophisticated operations that the emergency management officials employ in order to monitor the balloon behavior at the parade. The article characterizes these endeavors as “preparations worthy of a large-scale military operation.”

You think about that for a minute.

Your mind wanders to your grandmother, a woman who was your age around the years 1938, 1939, 1940, the golden era of American big band music, the era when people actually dressed in their finest clothes to go to baseball games. An era that is long gone. And over the past years you have spent hours researching that era in the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts. You also researched the generation before, yearning to conjure the ghosts of old Broadway, the vaudevillians, and even before that, the travelers of the ancient Mohican trail… You went way far back in history as a student of the storytelling tradition should do.

Meanwhile, you wrote, turned your research into a novel, a mediocre literary endeavor, an attempt. Now it sits on the shelf, aging. But now you actually admit you feel a bit of envy for those days when this nation was so much less…what?

Less arrogant.

You recall a greeting card your grandmother sent you while you were living abroad. The card featured Snoopy with a “Missing you…” phrase on the cover. Inside, she wrote, “We look forward to when you come home to the good ol’ U.S. of A!”

You read the simple message and could hear her voice saying it. You instantly felt the yawn, the immense chasm between the “good ol’ U.S. of A.” that your grandmother felt proudly connected to and the distant nation that you felt increasingly ambivalent about. These are more than “generation” gaps you feel amongst yourselves, your seniors, and your juniors. These are zeitgeist gaps. You aren’t merely separated by years, dance steps, and fashion trends. What about the wildly different spirits of these ages?

Regarding your grandmother’s era, you didn’t feel this sense of “Those were the good old days.” But more of a feeling that her generation’s elation was somehow connected to and responsible for your generation’s disappointments. And in your mind, these generations seem so utterly self-contained, so packaged, managed, purchased. What's on your t-shirt? Homage to Beatlemania or the hip Jersey garage band. Are the two properly acknowledging one another? Is this a sensible question?

Today, you remember your paternal grandmother. The Thanksgiving holiday conjures her ghost. The last time you saw her, ailing yet conscious, was Thanksgiving 2001. You brought her fruit (she couldn’t stomach much else) and a balloon shaped like a turkey. The balloon conked her on the head when you entered her room at the nursing home. That made her laugh. You ate fruit with her. You massaged her shoulders and neck and said something that made her laugh.

Your father called a few weeks later. He cried to you over the phone (something you’d never heard, ever, in your life). She had suffered a stroke and was in a coma. The next day you flew from NYC to Chicago. You knew she didn't want to pass on like her sister-in-law had, with no one there in the room.

You made it to the hospital in Hoffman Estates a few hours before. She passed very peacefully, the whole family circled around her, your father repeated the simple, “Now I lay me down to sleep…” prayer. You all saw her let go her last breath.

She passed away on December 8, 2001. That was the 21st anniversary of John Lennon’s death (the year the ghost of the ol’ singer/songwriter reached the legal drinking age, assuming they have such rites of passage in The Hereafter…).

Now you are thinking of your grandmother, Alma Johnson, because she used to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on television, faithfully. After seeing Santa Claus wave from that last sleigh-ride float, ringing in the more fun holiday, Alma would wait—quiet, patient, with her hair and makeup done—for your father to come pick her up from her condo in Palatine to bring her to your home in Arlington Heights for the big feast. Your mother never got along well with this sweet, old woman. That’s a deep sore spot for you. Isn’t it? But Time—with his work cut out for him—is working in you. Healing the wounds. Yes, even that wound.

Your grandmother’s name? Alma. Alma. The word “alma” is Spanish. Means soul. The woman had Soul, a whole lot of intensely quiet Soul. If she ever spoke, it was to make a remark, a wisecrack, something to try to get a laugh out of you. She never failed on that score.

You could use a dose of her old-timer brand of humor while you sit in this diner among strangers on another rainy day in New York City. You miss her.

Now you live on 73rd Street in Manhattan, blocks away from where they blow up those gigantic helium balloons for the traditional Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Alma Johnson might have been elated to go see such a sight.

You didn’t bother.

You had observed the crowds: family, friends, and children walking uptown to secure a spot to watch this ritual of blowing up the balloons on Wednesday evening around the Museum of Natural History.

You didn’t go because you were heading downtown, had to go to class. You wouldn’t have gone to the balloons anyway because you don’t have children. And these things just aren’t that much fun without children around.

Anyway, getting back to the title of this post “You Wanna Hold His Hang at the Thanksgiving Day Parade.”

Why does this post have this title? You were trying to tie the story of your grandmother into the theme you’ve been exploring lately, these sojourns to Strawberry Fields to read poetry.

You didn’t work in a visit to Strawberry Fields on Thanksgiving Day because the crowds standing under umbrellas and that enormous obstruction, that grandest of American holiday traditions: The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

So you indulge in a bit of a longing kind of mood; you remember your grandmother; and you might as well work in a little memory of John Lennon while you’re at it because it’s impossible to live in this neighborhood and not think about him.

And you know from what you’re reading about him that Mister Lennon had an absurdist’s sense of humor, and he liked wordplay.

Could twisting “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” into “You Wanna Hold His Hang” give a dead man a little amusement?

Well…admit it, already…you do wonder what that ghost would think of you wanting to hold his hang.


One thing is certain: such a thought would have made sweet Alma Johnson blush.

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