I get why teenagers want to go out on New Year's Eve, I really do. It's because they want to make us crazy. The reason I know this is because I was 17 once. There were few things worse than being home on New Year's Eve. It was worse than missing Prom, worse than not going to Florida for Spring Break, worse than flunking your driver's test.
Dear old Dad always called New Year's Eve "amateur night"--a night fraught with beginning binge drinkers making asses of themselves, generally wreaking havoc, and possibly jeopardizing life and limb. Going out on this auspicious occasion was seriously frowned upon. (The same was true for the purchase and use of roman candles, smoke bombs and bottle rockets on the Fourth of July.) Participating in year-end revelry was even more strenuously discouraged if it involved driving. Ask to borrow Dad's car on December 31st? Fuhgedaboudit!
I have no memory of my parents ever going to a fancy, grown-up New Year's Eve bash. They usually stayed home and stuck to regular bedtimes. I don't think Mom's welcomed in the new year since 1960. If Dad stayed up it was because he was watching a movie, a West Coast football game, or was engrossed in a detective novel.
The recommended New Year's celebration--before we kids reached the age of rebellion--was G-rated fun with family friends. We went ice skating, drank hot chocolate, ate chili and played wholesome games like charades. Once, there was even a taffy pull. No kidding. Noise making was improvised by banging various kitchen implements on pots and pans and toasting was done with sparkling cider.
One year when I was home for winter break from college, Dad revoked driving privileges because of a major snowstorm. A friend who lived a couple of miles from our house was having a New Year's Eve party and there was NO WAY I was going to miss it. With no car at my disposal, I was forced to be resourceful. I packed my outfit for the party, along with some overnight things, into a hanging bag and strapped it to a Flexible Flyer with a bungee cord. Dressed like Nanook of the North, I trudged down Green Bay Road, pulling my sled in the face of stinging snow until I reached my friend's home.
It seems very odd, as I reflect on it this New Year's, that my parents had no qualms about me walking miles in the snow all by myself! But I know now that there's very little rational about the way parents feel about New Year's Eve.
As the parent of a teenager on this final day of the year, here's what New Year's Eve looks like to me...
Picture a really busy multi-lane highway. (In my mind it's California's PCH.) Even though the cars are bumper-to-bumper, they are still moving about 80 miles an hour so crossing is extremely tricky and dangerous if not down right impossible. It's a much more serious version of that Seinfeld episode where George pushes an arcade game (Frogger?) across a New York City street, trying to dodge moving traffic. Only, instead of the silly video game music playing like a calliope in the background, I hear the theme from Jaws. Da dum. Da dum. Dadumdadumdadum.
I wouldn't let my dog off the leash here, let alone try to cross it myself. Let's say I do try to cross and find myself on the median. Cars are whizzing by, causing a wind tunnel, and the honking horns are cacophonous. If I somehow make it across to the far side of the highway, there is a rocky beach leading to turbulent, shark-infested waters. If I turn back, there is a dense, overgrown forest with creatures unknown. Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) aren't even the half of what lurks within. I'm thinking more along the line of "those of whom we do not speak" from M. Night Shyamalan's The Village... huge, daunting, hairy creatures with ferocious snaggleteeth.
I guess I'm kind of like Dad in that I sincerely wish my teenage daughter didn't want to go out on New Year's Eve. But maybe I'm a little like her too, because I understand her desire to be with friends and celebrate the milestone of one year past and another ahead. It's a bit of a right of passage for both parents and kids... another piece of letting go... of trusting... of sending them into the world... with a blessing... saying a prayer and hoping we've taught them well... holding vigil till they come home. And if they let us, we'll tuck them into bed--figuratively if not literally because they are almost adults, after all--for the first of many times in the New Year.
A version of this story first appeared on A Work in Progress on December 30, 2010.