A few days ago I shared a tradition with some of my colleagues at work. On New Year’s Eve German television broadcasts a show called “Dinner for One”. It was first aired in 1963 and has been shown every year I can remember. Everybody at home basically knows it whereas unsurprisingly no one in Canada seemed to be familiar with it.
The story is about Ms. Sophie who is celebrating her 90th birthday. The problem is that her friends all died long before her. Her last best friend died 25 years ago. Hence, every year she relives the celebrations by having her butler impersonate her valued guests Sir Toby, Admiral van Schneider, Mr. Pommeroy and Mr. Winterbottom.
A couple of different copies can be found on YouTube. In this one the English language version starts at 2:26 minutes.
When I watched it again, I actually had some very good laughs. Who would have thought that such a simple and old sketch could still make many people laugh? Maybe it is just a timeless classic. However, in the following days I started thinking about the actual story by pushing all the funny parts away. James simply is hilarious, but is it really funny that an old lady spends the new year’s celebrations on her own? I had to think of all the people who might not have been able to celebrate Christmas and NYE as they might have wanted to, like people in hospitals, old people, homeless and so on. I guess because I have been and still am in a position where family events such as Christmas pose a challenge I can now better envision potential challenges for other people in similar situations. Such events are simply not the same with our children missing.
Moreover, the sketch brought up a lot of thoughts about memories for me. For Ms. Sophie it is obviously very important to remember the good old times with her friends to the extent that she re-creates the experience year after year. Bereaved parents work hard to keep the memory of their children alive. I don’t think any parent would ever forget their children, but some of the very precious moments might fade. Sensory impressions like a smell or a sound could slip away when years pass. That is certainly one of my fears. How can I capture these moments forever? Does writing them down help? How do I put a smell or sound into words? We had so little time with our boys that I sometimes just wish to be able to revive my memories.
On the other hand we have memories that we would gladly not have experienced or might want to get rid off. I posted about PTSD and I am sure most people would be glad to erase traumatic experiences that they actually might not be able to forget. It seems unfortunate that we are not able to control how our memories work. Wouldn’t it be great if we could better recall the moments that are important to us and make the difficult ones fade a little? Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting that all unpleasant memories should be eliminated. They are certainly important and remind us of what we have during better times. But it seems unfair that I vividly can recall the moment when the nurse said she cannot find Tobias’s heartbeat whereas the warmth of Marlon’s head resting on my chest might not be as strong three years later than it was just one week later.
The last thing that this sketch made me think about is the power of a physically empty chair. This gesture very simply exemplifies a state of mind: someone is missing. While my wife and I constantly think of our sons and talk with and about them, this might not be the case for everyone else. A lot of people don’t even know our full story and might make assumptions about us and why we don’t seem to have children. From my experience most parents fear that the existence of their child will not be acknowledged. The only thing I can recall is the tradition to dress in black during a time of mourning to signal outwardly to others that someone beloved is remembered. Would the same principle work with an empty chair? Other bereaved parents have mentioned to us that they set a dish for their child when they host events for family and friends. I can see why that might become important, especially as the years go by. How do you feel about having a chair reserved for your deceased child?