During the holidays, I go to a helluva lot of parties. Clients hire me to perform at corporate parties for employees and their wives. Fancy parties for celebrities from the A list to the ZZZZZZ list. Filipino parties in Cerritos in middle-class homes with a roast pig and they say, “Eat, eat!” Sometimes, clients even fly me into other cities for the parties, and I stand on a lovely stage in San Francisco, New York, or Denver.
But four years ago, I was hired to perform magic at a home Christmas party in La Crescenta, and that was the beginning of something. I was hired to perform four hours of walkaround, strolling magic for an extended family.
If you don’t know what walkaround closeup magic looks like, look at this video:
It seemed like just a regular gig. It was a sprawling but not gaudy house nestled in the foothills. The lady of the house, Jane, was an energetic grandmother who lived alone, and I’m still not sure what the story is about her husband, whether he’s dead or disenfranchised, because nobody ever talks about him, even though I do the party every year now and have become a regular fixture of it. In addition, Jane had hired caterers to provide a nice little spread, a clown to play with the toddlers, a photo booth, and some guy to set up an exciting slot-car racetrack for the grandkids under a tarp on the other side of the swimming pool.
At the party, I performed for this group and that group, eliciting gasps and laughter, which is the service they hire me to provide, gasps and laughter, it’s what I sell, it’s what people buy.
And all the while, I’m marveling at Jane, because you can tell she’s an extraordinary woman. The energy she gives off sets her apart. She’s about 65 and has these quick eyes, this airtight mind, and this presence that is equal parts granite and love. It’s hard to say how I can tell this, but it comes through just by looking at her, that she’s a one-in-a-thousand woman. As the party progresses, I’m performing magic constantly, but behind my performances, there’s a river of thought running beneath it. I begin to think that with Jane, I’m in the presence of someone who could accomplish anything, and probably did. The house is probably worth a couple mil, and I’m thinking her extraordinary character must have had something to do with it.
After a couple hours, I slowed down and chatted with one of Jane’s sons.
“Gee, everybody seems so happy and friendly at this party,” I said. “My family’s not like this. There are people not talking to other people, one uncle who hasn’t come to the family party for 15 years because he had a financial disagreement with his brother-in-law over a business deal. There’s a cousin who brings a woman to our parties that his son was originally dating. I have a nephew who won’t hug me when he sees me because he’s mad at his father.”
“He’s mad at his father and he doesn’t hug you?”
“It’s crazy. But you guys seem to have the ideal family.”
“Oh, we have that kind of stuff, too,” he said. “You just can’t see it, but it’s there.”
It gave me some solace to know that dysfunction isn’t unique to my people, but is the lingua franca of the holidays.
Towards the end of the party, I had elevated Jane to goddess status. That’s when she filled me in on the history of the party.
“This is the first time I’ve had this party in 11 years,” she said.
“Oh, did you have a magician at the party before?” I said.
“Yes, it was a magician named Mark Furey, and he did it for ten years running. But apparently, Mark isn’t doing magic anymore.”
Mark, I knew, had gone on to greater success as a screenwriter. A couple of his movies had been produced, and apparently, all his time was now devoted to manufacturing words for the silver screen.
I interrupted our conversation to perform a little standup show in the living room for the 80 people assembled, and it was a hit. People came up to me to make the usual comments.
“How do you do that?”
“That card trick was sick.”
“You are a freak of nature.”
They were the highest of compliments. I felt rather confident at that point, thinking that I might take over as the magician who performs at this party for another 10 years. It was a good thing, because Jane had hired me at a pretty good rate of pay. Finally, as I was packing up, Jane came over to tell me how much she had loved the show.
“Why did you stop having the party for 11 years?” I asked.
It was the wrong question to ask. Jane’s face fell. I thought maybe I had stepped into a landmine of dysfunction, perhaps, or maybe something worse. That’s when Jane led me over to a tall glass-enclosed cabinet filled with photographs.
“My son would have loved your magic,” she said, her voice suddenly becoming somber. “He passed away 11 years ago. These are all my pictures and mementos of him.”
And it was, indeed, a shrine to her late son about eight feet high and the width of a grandfather clock. Here was a photo of her son on the high school swim team, her son on his first day of school, her son’s college diploma. And while she showed me, I realized exactly why Jane had taken an 11-year hiatus from Christmas parties. She had been overcome with grief. She couldn’t be gay and merry. She had felt like dying. She had felt that celebrating anything, even Christmas, would betray her son’s memory.
But 11 years had passed and people had convinced her to pull herself out of it. Now, somehow, she had found it within herself to gather the family at her house again. She was wearing a red sweater with a reindeer on the front. She gave out boxes of chocolates as gifts as people left. She hired a magician again. As she stood talking about her beloved son at the photograph-filled cabinet, I realized that the grief hadn’t gone away, of course, but it had reduced to a manageable level.
Not only that, but she had realized that she had a choice. She could be sad in her isolation, or she could step back into life. Jane had chosen life. And I was glad to bring a little magic into that life.
Update: Once again this year, I performed at Jane’s party. Here’s the video of my parlour performance, which followed the walkaround performance.