Anniversaries (for Liz)

by Jeff Oaks

I know the day I was conceived was September 9, 1963. It was my parents’ 13th anniversary. They were both, according to my father, drunk, and my mother “took advantage of him”. Her story went that that was one of the few times they had sex, their marriage already whittled down by anger, irritation, disappointment, and responsibilities. Nine months later, I brought them some more of those, as well as some surprises they appreciated later.

Anniversaries abound. In Catholicism, every day has its saint. In history, by which I mean, every day has had its share of excitement. The Battle of Gettysburg began on this day in 1863. They form a set of mile markers that helps regularize the sometimes chaotic journey of each year. You organize your vacation time around them. You plan your paychecks to deal with their various costs.

Any word with verse in it I ought to like or at least be interested in. The turning of the year, which is its Latin meaning, is the recognition that a wheel has turned, or in another more modern understanding of time, a spiral has crossed over the zero degree mark again on its endless circular route. And that’s one of the problems with anniversaries, isn’t it? Has a wheel merely turned and we’re back where we started, or have we reached a new level as the year has changed?

Certain anniversaries you might prefer the wheel metaphor–I’m guessing many marriages would love to keep that honeymoon love intact year after year, but feel instead a loss of that initial excitement and joy as love gets tangled up in responsibility and compromise and recognition of each individual’s needs. One often feels a responsibility to go back to that old love by way of gesture at least–a fancy dinner, dressing up for each other, gifts, time together, or in my parents’ case, the old urge to reproduce the original point of their union: pleasure, fun, hope, sex.

For myself I have a tendency toward the spiral metaphor within anniversaries. For romantic ones, I feel like I must give more and more each year to the loved one, as if mere reproduction of our original date of commitment isn’t enough. Since I’ve been poor most of my life, each anniversary thus has been fraught with anxiety and self-recrimination. I’m cheap. I haven’t worked hard enough. I don’t love well. Consequently, I have often sabotaged those moments, sometimes in startlingly ungenerous ways. Anniversaries are expensive goes the voice in my head. There’s was one of the few times I’d see my parents dressed up, my mother’s divine and icy Chanel Number Five in the air, my father in a suit with his hair dark with Brillcreme probably, like the were the King and Queen of Neptune come to visit us earthlings. To see them that way almost made up for the fact that they usually came home and screamed at each other.

The anniversaries that are most important to me have traditionally been my birthday, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day. They each are meditative spaces in the year for thinking about my own progress. Birthdays are generally about my personal life, Thanksgiving is about my emotional and/or spiritual life, and New Year’s is about my professional and publishing life.
If I can imagine that the year has been merely a wheel, that I haven’t really moved from where I was last year, the anniversary is a space and time to consider why, feel for what’s missing or desired. Some anniversaries mark a change upward, a rising spiral, and some mark a change downward. Either way, it’s a time to consider and try to touch my feelings for my life in a serious way. In the past I’ve had these days to myself which has helped me to reach those feelings which have always been notoriously shy and even chameleonic around people.

It’s interesting to me that I have no real anniversary marker for the spring. For some people it might be Valentine’s Day, I suppose. Or Easter. Or the annual AWP Conference. I think there is an important anniversary for me in March, which is both my mother and grandmother’s birthday month: it’s the arrival of the first warm breeze and the subsequent melting of the ground. As an anniversary, it’s a floating one, but it is a strong moment in the year for me. Again the cold is lifting. Begin again, it whispers, with everything you now know.