Many of the high school students I accompanied had a real fetish for the music of Stephen Sondheim. Knowing he wasn’t one of my favorite composers, they would sheepishly hand over their music notebooks open to a tattered Sondheim piece. Several of the boys latched onto “Sorry Grateful,” a song with a melodic line and rhythmic feeling which are just as odd as it’s title. Even though I heard the song dozens of times, I always cringed at the juxtaposition of these two words. “Sorry” and “grateful” never seemed to work together in my mind.
Today, though, I feel as if they finally make sense to me, this odd combination of emotions piggy-backed on top of each other. Perhaps I’m feeling sorry enough for myself this Thanksgiving Eve that I can tap into the memory of adolescent angst which serves as a magnet for introspective songs like these.
You’re always sorry
You’re always grateful
You’re always wondering what might have been…
Why look for answers
Where none occur?
You always are
What you always were…
Confession time. I’m one of those people for whom holidays are simply – alright, I’m going to say it – agonizing. I fall into a huge, funkous depression every year around this time, and it lasts clear through until January 2, when I heave a big sigh of relief, pick myself up, dust myself off, and start living again.
This may have its roots in the horrendous holiday celebrations I was forced to endure when my in-laws were still around. My father in law, an evangelical charter member of the John Birch Society, usually launched into his “Armageddon” speech right about the time we passed the first platter of turkey. My mother in law would do her best to quiet him, which usually involved her own brand of excoriating criticisms and declamations. My husband would continue eating through gritted teeth, until, grim faced, he would push angrily back from the table. “Enough!” he would shout. “I can’t take this anymore.”
Ah, yes. Sorry grateful.
My anathema toward the holidays could also stem from a regrettable pattern of childhood illness which always found me laid low at Christmas time with bronchitis or asthma. Whether it was the cold weather, the forced air heat in the furnace, or (as my mother insisted) too much excitement, I was inevitably too sick to attend the annual Christmas party with all my paternal aunts, uncles, and cousins. Unbeknownst to my mother (whom I’m sure thought I was just as glad as she was to be spared this hoopla) I was heartsick every year when I had to stay home in bed while my dad went off alone to the party. I didn’t care so much about the sackful of presents he brought back for me…I wanted to be right smack in the middle of all those noisy kids and laughing adults. Instead, I was tucked safely into my bed at home, slathered with Vicks while the vaporizer chugged and hissed, filling the room with hot, moist steam.
Ah yes. Sorry grateful.
Where’s the grateful part? you ask. Well, I’m aware I have a good life – always have. I’m grateful for my health, my relative wealth, my home(s), and most of all, the people who love me. But every holiday season, I go looking for something that just isn’t there. A sense of well being or belonging, a feeling of excitement or anticipation – all the things that the world prods us to hope for during this season. I keep hoping it’ll turn up, but it never seems to be there. This year, with my family more fragmented by distance than ever, that elusive spark of holiday happiness seems completely out of reach. More and more, I feel myself turning inward, longing for a closet to crawl into for the next six weeks, so I can come out into the clean light of a new year with all that holiday nonsense cleaned up and tossed in the dust bin where it belongs.
All of life is an alternating pattern of sorry grateful, everyone knows that, and Stephen Sondheim was only one of many composers who capitalized on this dichotomy. I really want to be happy during the holiday season, I’m really sorry that somehow I just never can be.
And I’m truly grateful when it’s over.