Wednesday, June 22, 2011

We are family, and then some

Last night my sister-in-law and I were watching all the kids on the beach. We remarked that it was great to see my little barnacle jumping in and playing soccer (playing well; thanks, coach Whit!) with his uber-athletic sixteen-year-old cousin from California. We talked about how Caroline was really able to hang out with the "big kids" in the big waves for the first time this year, and about how we had watched these kids grow up, year upon year, at the same time (now) and in the same place (here).

I was sitting on this same beach ten years ago, blissfully reading, uninterrupted, when parents would be dragged in for nap time and they'd look at unencumbered me with envy. Then I was here with baby Caroline, and then here pregnant with Jack, and various people have been here without a child one year and then a newborn the next, and we've all been exhausted and not drinking wine and up all night with kids, and then we all had front row seats as newborns turned into toddlers and all the joy and frustration of those years came with them. We saw the screaming when the now (calm and happy) 11 year old gave up her pacifier, or the darker years when one (incredibly brilliant and successful) now college student was filled with teenage angst. It's all unfolded in their lives, and we've seen it as it's happened, here.

So that made me think about traditions, and how important they are in our family. This beach vacation is a tradition for five families and not one of them/us could do without it. It is so heavily laden with memories (both Caroline and Jack learned to swim in the pool here) that we can't take one, single step in the sand without a story or a memory rushing in.

Beyond this, we have other traditions that aren't so dramatic but that are still important. Our children have never had a Christmas Eve without a big party at our house, and it stresses me out and costs a fortune and every year I say I'll never do it again and that's all part of the tradition that probably won't end until I'm dead.

Whit plays snapping turtle with the kids at least a few times a week…it's some crazy/hilarious/probably dangerous game they made up years and years and years ago. I make a really special treat we share with our neighbors every year, on the first day of school. The Easter Bunny winds a labyrinth of colored string throughout our entire house while we sleep unaware, so the kids have to complete a veritable obstacle course to find their baskets. The fourth of July means the same event every year. And, if you've read this for a while, you know all about St. Patrick's Day and those crazy leprechauns. We share many traditions with friends and family, but they're pretty much all about Jack and Caroline and making their lives magical.

When Jack and Caroline grow up and look back at their childhoods, I hope at least one chapter is devoted to our family traditions. The lot of them is uniquely ours: others may do pajamas on Valentine's Day or get doughnuts after church or walk the dog together on summer nights, but when you take our million little threads and our million little traditions and our million little stories and just the way we do things as a family, and you weave them together, you get a totally unique, totally quirky, totally weird family. And I guess that's what we all do, in different ways.

Even my friend who revels in the fact that the most consistent thing in her parenting is its absolutely predictable inconsistency has a family so tightly woven together it's as if they move as a single unit. She may not do the same things year after year after year, but her nutty, go-with-the-wind parenting style is exactly the thread that holds her family together and gives it substance. My favorite single mom has two boys who will be absolutely devastated to someday learn that the Birthday Monster is a very tired single mom trying to hang streamers from a very high ceiling at a very late hour two times a year. It never looks the same, from family to family.

It's not a bad exercise, you know. Just to take a moment and list your family traditions, or list the touchstones that matter so much to your family. No matter what your family looks like, you have those touchstones, and shining a light on them, even just in your own mind, gives them weight and strength. And reminds you that yes, you're doing it right.

Which is why we're leaving now…twilight cookout. Yup, you guessed it, it's a tradition. And I wouldn't miss it.

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