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New Years Eve Redefined

alec vanderboom

I spent my twenty-fifth birthday dressed in long underwear, new earrings and a damp felt hat. I’d dragged a bottle of champagne to the banks of the Thames River. My friend, Gloria and I, didn’t bring glasses, so we took swigs straight from the bottle, surrounded by a crowd of two million.

It was December 31, 1999. Deciding to celebrate the junction of the millennium & my first quarter century with a hop across the pond seemed glamorous and exciting as I discussed it with my housemate at 2 AM in snowy Madison, Wisconsin. The dream in actuality was not so glamorous.

The weather, as winter weather always is in London, was that awful spitting rain that somehow chills to the bone far worse than an actual blizzard. I wore three layers in anticipation. Still, every piece of me ached with cold. The crowd, which seemed gloriously thrilling as I rode the Underground into the city, now turned into an overwhelming force. People pressed up against me with inches to spare. There were drunk, rude guys trying to “cop a feel” and no room to move to avoid them. I realized that if I slipped on the wet pavement, there would be no way Gloria could ever get me back on my feet. I’d be trampled by the massive crowd, which kept surging forward in unpredictable waves.

Gloria and I popped the champagne cork to celebrate my birth-time at 10:31 PM. She took a picture of me waving underneath Big Ben. After a few happy swigs, we realized mournfully that we had an hour and a half to kill before midnight. What were we going to do?

Looking around, I realized that we were close to Westminster Abbey. “Want to hang out in a church?” I asked her. “Yes” was her enthusiastic answer.

We filed into the famous church at about 10:45 PM, happy to unwrap ourselves from our wet coats and soaked mittens. I said a quick prayer of thanks and then lost myself in my own daydreams. (Church sanctuaries were a homey, familiar place for both Gloria and I. Back in Madison we were housemates at an inter-faith Episcopal College Dorm called “St. Francis House.”)

Within a few minutes an organ started playing, and then a few parishioners filed in. “They are having a special service tonight?” I asked. Gloria, who was a Catholic from Columbia, knew all about New Years Eve vigil. I, as an American Methodist, had no idea what was going on. Gloria helped me find my place in the prayer book. We were happy to find an honest reason to stay out of the rain.

The memory of that night made an impression on me. Inside the ancient stone church, there was warmth, music, calm, a comfortable space to move around and to be myself. Outside, was the large, chaotic crowd. I felt as though the church was a safe ship amid a stormy sea. I said my prayers for world in the new millennium. “Why was Mary involved in ushering in world peace?” I wondered.

Before this past New Years Eve, I always thought the story of Jon and I started with two New Years Resolutions. (On January 1, 2000, the shy Jon decided to “start asking girls out” for the first time. Meanwhile, after reading “She’s Come Undone, my 2000 year resolution was to “drink people’s milkshakes accept the love that is offered.” A mere three weeks later, Jon decided to uncharacteristically send a free drink to the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. I was about to decline, since I’m clearly “not a girl who accepts drinks from strange men in a bar.” Then the “accept people’s milkshakes” line came into my head, and so over the objection of my friend and five of her burly brothers, I went to the bar to get my free shot. The bartender was a girl named Beth, “the guy that sent that to you is down there, in the orange baseball cap. He’s really nice if you want to say thank you.” I started to walk towards the guy in the orange cap. He was so shocked to see me that he promptly fell off his bar stool. That sheepish grin as he climbed back on his barstool went right to my heart, and gave me courage. “At least, he’s not a Casanova!” I thought happily. “My name is Jon & I have two dogs,” so started the conversation, which is still going on eight years later, only now its over the din of teething babies instead of the roar of Wisconsin beer drinkers.)

So, I’d always credited our marriage to two lonely people making a resolution to look harder to find love in a New Year. Celebrating vigil at midnight with my family this year, I’ve come to a different conclusion. I clearly remember that night on Dec 31, 1999. I remember feeling scared, and jostled, and needing a safe refuge from the maddening crowd. I remember finding a quiet church, and spending the night in an earnest prayer for peace—asking the aid of a Blessed Mother I never knew I had.

Our Blessed Mother heard my prayer for world peace. She didn’t direct me to start an inter-faith summer camp or send shoeboxes of school supplies to Africa. Instead, she guided me to my husband, a shy boy who had been living two blocks from me the entire two and half years of my falling, flagging, time in law school. She guided Jon and I into Holy Matrimony and towards a conversion of faith to the Catholic Church. A peaceful family life is the building block of a peaceful society. Now Jon and I are humble bricklayers in tasks that we never knew the world always needed.

In 2007, I capped off my birthday celebration by waking three sleepy children, dressing them in their Christmas best, and packing them into a church pew. Mass began at 11:30 and ended to 12:38. It was the first time that Jon and I had ever skipped the 10, 9, 8 . . . countdown to midnight. We prayed. We sang. We didn’t know the clock had turned until our priest gave us the time at the close of Mass. My birthday was officially over. Then I realized that I’d been born just in time to celebrate Vigil Mass on Our Blessed Mother’s special feast day. It didn’t matter that I didn’t learn how to say a rosary until age 28. I’d been a Mary’s girl, all along!