Viva la Diferencia

My new Mexican friends (not to be confused with my longtime New Mexican friends, who know better) tell me, “Don’t worry!” That, to me, is like telling a lion to become a vegetarian.

Some things about us are immutable, I think, and worry is like that for me. I’ve been doing it – and doing it well – for as long as I can remember. I even looked worried in my baby pictures.

When I press my memory’s rewind button to locate the source of this knee-jerk response to things, my mind stops at this image: My father, large, bloated with booze, and bald, taking a long drag on his Marlboro, blowing the smoke above my head, then waving the cigarette in front of my four- or five-year-old face and slurring, “Yer on yer own, kid! Don’t look ta me fer anything!” Yes, perhaps that’s when I really began to worry in earnest.

But don’t tsk-tsk. I learned a lot from him. Without intending to, he taught me to be independent, self-reliant, and resilient. In an era when “Father” purportedly knew “Best,” his words and behavior taught me to question everything – an excellent intellectual exercise. In a time and place (conservative suburban New Jersey, circa 1950s) where flag-waving patriotism mattered, he gave me a kind of freedom from all that: Devoid of a sense of patrimony (or is the correct word “patriarchy”?), from which, I believe, patriotism stems, I could only pledge my deepest allegiance to Mother Earth.

Inadvertently, my father made me strong.

But the down side – there’s always a down side, que no? – is that a lifetime of knowing there’s no one “at my back,” as they say (“yer on yer own, kid” was a refrain), made me wary, ever-vigilant, always looking all around me, and especially over my shoulder. I became a world-class worrier.

Yes, I know I sometimes overdo it. But, frankly, there’s a lot to worry about in this crazy world. If you don’t believe me, just spend a little time watching CNN. You can count on the avuncular Wolf Blitzer to comment on correspondents’ reports — such as yesterday’s newest revelation about what North Korea has been up to – with, “Well, that is worrisome!”

The biggest worry for Americans, in my view right now — the worry at the very peak of the mountain range of current world worries — is that the big, bloated, bully Donald Trump could indeed be elected President. Now that’s something to worry about.

But, getting back to my new Mexican friends:

They came to my house last Saturday evening to celebrate a birthday. “Don’t worry,” they told me ahead of time, “we’ll take care of everything!”

And, true to their word, they did. They brought the food, the music, the laughter and the dancing. Fourteen guests in all – the eighty-year-old patriarch widower, five of his twelve children, plus their children and “the birthday boy” and his grown daughter. After having spent ten stressful years as a New York City caterer who worried herself sick over the success (or failure) of every party she did, I was surprised (and relieved) to find that at this birthday party I truly had nothing to worry about.

Dancing with "the birthday boy" last Saturday night
Dancing with “the birthday boy” last Saturday night

I observed this family’s dynamics warily, objectively, like the closet anthropologist I tend to be: their joie de vivre, their ease in each other’s company; three generations cooking, eating, laughing and dancing happily, seamlessly, together.

This family embraces me. The men, old and young, dance with me as though my age is irrelevant. Twirling to their Mexican CDs, “worry” is the last thing on my mind.

I marvel at our polar differences. And I make a silent request to the Universe: If I have to come back again, I hope it’s as a happy-go-lucky Mexican person in a large, loving family that spends most Saturday nights dancing.