Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Auld Lang Syne Jar

“Happy New Year, Catherine!” Eric exclaimed as his rush across the Great Hall ended in a collision with her and a rib-cracking hug. “I’m glad you got here. You’re just in time. We haven’t opened the jar yet.”

“The jar?” she asked. “What jar is that, Eric?”

Eric looked briefly at Vincent and back to Catherine. “You don’t know about New Year’s Eve and the Old Long Sign Jar?”

She shook her head and looked to Vincent, who seemed to be working very hard to keep a straight face. “It’s my first New Year’s Eve here, too, Eric. What’s the Old Long—?”

“The Auld Lang Syne Jar,” Vincent said with the subtlest emphasis on pronunciation as he gave in to the urge to grin, “is our New Year’s Eve tradition. At any point in the year, when something especially good has happened to one of us here Below, we sometimes write it down on a slip of paper and put it in a jar Father keeps on one of the shelves in his study. Things we’re grateful for, surprises, accomplishments, those little things in our lives that have made us happy, times that we’ll want to remember. As the end of the year approaches, most people put in some small reflection about the year as a whole. Then on December 31, Father brings the jar here to our celebration and reads them to everyone.”

“Oh, what a lovely tradition, Vincent.”

He nodded. “It’s a way to look back on the year that’s just ended and remember all the things that made it good. It always ends the year on a very positive note.”

Catherine rested her hand over her heart and sighed. “I’ve never heard of this before, but I think it’s wonderful. So much better than making the same old resolutions year after year, and forgetting them all before February.”

“Father’s got the jar!” Eric hopped up and down like he had bugs in his boxers. Grabbing Catherine’s hand, he pulled her toward some empty chairs. “Come on! Come sit with me.”

With an indulgent smile, she followed Eric, and Vincent followed her. Mary joined Father at a table in the front of the hall and picked up a tea cup with a broken handle.  Catherine noticed a large corkboard propped against the wall by the table. Father set down a translucent blue-green mason jar and unscrewed its rusty old lid.

“As we do each year on this day, before we start the new year, let’s think back on some of our best memories from the old year. We will be looking forward to more good things, like these, to come over the course of the next 365 days.” Father reached into the jar and removed a long strip of paper that looked like it had been torn from the bottom of a newspaper. “This one is from Annie. Mary taught me to tie my shoes.”

Many in the chamber turned to smile at the raven-haired kindergartener and there was a round of genuine applause. Mary beamed as she took the scrap of paper from Father and pinned it to the corkboard with thumbtacks from the broken cup.

William’s pie. And his biscuits. And his stew.” Father said as he read the next slip of paper. There were murmurings of widespread agreement. William’s cheeks pinkened to a shade that not even his bushy beard could hide. “No name on that one, but I think it’s a sentiment with which we all concur.”

Finding that fissure that led down to the new level of chambers saved us at least 6 months’ worth of digging and chiseling. That made my day. My month. My year! – Kanin

The cozy new chair in Father’s study. It’s the best place to read. – Samantha

I got adopted and now I have a Mommy and Daddy. – Teri

 Vincent reading to us every night after dinner. There’s nothing better Above or Below. – Ellie”

The community nodded and sighed and awwww-ed appropriately after each of these was read.

Father took out a folded index card from the jar and said, “Brand new pots and pans with that new stuff food can’t stick to showed up in the pantry one morning last week. Don’t know where they came from, but they sure make my life easier. – William” 

Catherine caught Vincent sneaking a sideways glance at her. She brushed the air between them with a shhhhh. “Don’t give me away.”

“Never,” he replied.

There was something else he said, too softly to hear, but she thought it sounded like it might have been, “I’ll keep you forever.” That couldn’t be right – could it? She wondered if it was just her own wishful thinking. It had to be, right? It felt like a hand was squeezing her heart. She was lost in thought for a while pondering all of that when she realized that she’d missed the reading of quite a few slips of paper.

Camping with the children in the Great Hall, we achieved perfection in the art of roasting marshmallows. – Vincent

I started music lessons and I really love the cello. I’m going to go to all the concerts in the park and learn to play just like them. – Geoffrey

Cheese. Macaroni and cheese. Grilled cheese.  Cheese soup. Cheese. No signature.”

Smiles were on every face. Catherine had to stifle a giggle when Vincent leaned over to her and said, “Is it wrong of me to hope that one’s from Mouse?”

We surprised Father with breakfast in bed for his birthday. – Jamie.  And a real treat it was for me, too. Thank you again, Jamie.

I found a wallet Up Top and Catherine helped me find the lady it belonged to. – Zach”

Zach waved to get Catherine’s attention. “I wrote that even before you gave me the ten dollars reward money she gave you.”

So many people have helped me making candles these last few months. I couldn’t have kept up without them. – Rebecca

Children laughing in the tunnels woke me up every morning this week. There’s no better alarm clock. – Sarah

For the first time ever, I beat Vincent at Scrabble! – Laura”

Everyone in the Hall raised their hands into the air and waggled them back and forth in the sign language gesture that meant applause.

“Almost none of these things are things,” Catherine marveled as the realization struck her. “Not material things. Most of the people I know would write about buying a new car or TV, taking a trip or getting a bigger house. The things everyone here wants to remember are almost all centered around people, not things that money can buy.”

The corners of Vincent’s mouth lifted slightly, his head nodding once in acknowledgement.

“This is so much better than what I’m used to Above.” She reached over and gave his hand a squeeze.

Teaching the girls to knit and seeing them wearing scarves they made all by themselves has made me so happy. The little ones grow up so fast. – Mary

Michael scrubbed the next section of walls for me so that I didn’t have to. – Elizabeth

We built a blanket fort in Vincent’s chamber. I bet it was the world’s record biggest blanket fort ever! We played games and spent the whole day there. It was great. – Kipper

Today the kids asked me to tell them stories of ‘the Olden Days’ and what it was like when I was little. I told them about the Depression, how I grew up without electricity or running water, and rode a mule to school. All my old stories were brand new to them. They hung on every word and kept asking questions for hours. I can’t remember when I felt so special and so loved. – Henry”

The atmosphere of the room had changed now. There were sniffs, and heads were bowed while several people blotted their eyes.

“Henry passed away in March,” Vincent whispered to Catherine. “He lived here most of my life. A kinder and gentler man, I’ve never known.”

Father looked away from the group for a moment, then cleared his throat and took another paper from the jar. “Most of the babies have learned to sleep through most of the night, most of the time. – Marta

Got best hiding place. 6 hide and seek games. IN A ROW. Hard to find Mouse! Obviously, that one’s from Mouse.

“Another one without a name: Trick or treating and crunchy leaves and roasted pumpkin seeds.

Everything. No signature on that one, either,” Father said, but he looked at Vincent as if he recognized the handwriting.  Catherine couldn’t help but notice that Vincent looked determinedly straight ahead until Father began reading the next slip of paper.

I was always afraid of water because I never learned to swim, but Vincent taught me and it’s so easy, I can’t believe I was ever scared. – Brooke

Catherine let us use her address so we could all get library cards of our own. – Ellie

Thanks to our Helpers Above, we had enough medicine for flu season. That one is from me,”
 Father said.

I heard some Springsteen in the Whispering Gallery this morning. I sat there and sang along. It lasted for a long time. I still have Born to Run stuck in my head.  – Cullen

Me and the guys—” Father paused and gave a small shake of his head, “the guys and I beat some topsiders playing basketball in the park yesterday. They made fun of our old shoes, but their fancy new ones didn’t help them jump one little bit. – Stephen

I got a job Above, a good one, thanks to Catherine’s recommendation. We’ll stay here until I save up enough for an apartment, and then we’ll be able to move back up and become Helpers. I’m going to give back to this place. – Burt

Eric was fidgeting, squirming back and forth in his chair, a small scowl behind his huge glasses.

“Do you need to use the restroom?” Vincent whispered. “We’ll save your seat for you, you know.”

“No!” Eric shot Vincent a mortified scowl and jerked his head slightly in Catherine’s direction. Catherine affected not to have noticed their exchange.

Mouse found a bunch of bubble wrap in an alley. He put it on the tunnel floor and let the children jump up and down on it. I’m so glad I was wrong about it being fireworks echoing down the tunnel. – Olivia

There were a couple of times this year when I was really worried, when people I care about were in trouble, and we didn’t know what was going to happen to them. But they came back home, and it’s all OK again now. – Winslow”

The last slip was a partial sheet of yellow legal paper. Eric sat up straight, looking back and forth between Father and Catherine.

Catherine brought me down here and introduced me to Vincent. Then she rescued Ellie so she can live here, too. I sure am glad she did. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened to us up there alone. She made this my best year ever.  – Eric”

Eric’s smiling face blurred a little as tears welled in Catherine’s eyes.  She blinked them back and scooped him into a hug. “That’s the sweetest thing anyone’s ever said to me, Eric.”

“I meant it, Catherine. Thanks for saving us.”

She wrapped her arms tighter around him and pressed a kiss into his cheek. She felt the warmth of Vincent’s hand placed on her back in support. When she looked up again, she saw people embracing one another everywhere. It seemed like everyone was talking and laughing over the reminiscences, adding bits to the stories, thanking each other for things throughout the year, and plans for the future were being made. There was a joyous vibration in the air as the tunnel people mingled, talking about the memories that were now all pinned to the board.

Eric let go of Catherine and looked bashfully down at the floor. A flush of pleasure bloomed on his cheeks and rose up his face until even the tips of his ears turned crimson. “Well, gonna find Ellie now. Bye, Catherine!” And with that – and a loud snuffle – he rushed off toward the stairs.

“I wish I’d known about this tradition, Vincent. I’d have loved to have put in a few slips of my own. I have so many priceless memories of this last year.” She looked meaningfully at him, willing him to understand.

“What would you have written,” he asked her quietly, “that made this last year good for you?”

“Well,” she began and paused. Her gaze locked on those blue eyes of his and nothing else in the world existed for a moment. She found she couldn’t speak now; she seemed to have forgotten how to breathe.

I could tell about the ten days that changed my life. Or how happy I was the first night I found a book on my balcony. How I value your hugs more than all the treasures of the world. I could write about how the best date of my life was a whole night walking though the city and watching the sun rise over the Brooklyn Bridge. I could tell how my life finally has meaning, how satisfying it is to be helping people who really need me. I’d describe a dream I’d never have dared to dream last New Year’s Eve.

With a shudder, her diaphragm remembered its job and her lungs began to function again.

“No. I don’t think I’d have put anything in the jar, after all.”

He tilted his head, in precisely that inquiring way she’d known he’d tilt his head. Knowing him well enough to know he’d do that; that’s another slip in the jar right there.

“If I started writing, I’d never be able to stop. And there just isn’t enough paper in the world, or room in that jar, for all the things that have made this last year the best of my life.”

And I resolve to make the new year just as good; it can’t help but be, so long as I have you, Vincent.  

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