The Fabric of Family


Lane Elizabeth Dooling

Copyright 2014 by Lane Dooling



Photo of a sign pointing to a reunion site.

Looking back, I have always been aware of how special family traditions are - as a child, teenager, young adult and now full circle as a parent. I remain a bit amazed at the power of simple family traditions - how the smallest practices seem to have a special meaning to be long remembered. Even more amazing is that they can be interwoven into the fabric of dysfunction that sometimes defines the backdrop of family life. I have known many people who did not have easy childhoods but were able to come through them possibly clinging to the happiness and familiarity their family traditions brought, even if limited. I can't help but conclude that these reoccurring events or customs offer hope, comfort and optimism - gold sparkles amidst cloudy days .

I was reminded of my dedication and gratitude to family traditions when I was helping my son with an English paper. I briefly skimmed an excerpt from the book by Marie Winn entitled Television: The Plug-in Drug. After reading the author's thoughts on family rituals, my deep connection of traditions were validated - I suddenly understood why they are so important.

Ms. Winn writes "Ritual is defined by sociologists as that part of family life that the family likes about itself, is proud of and wants formally to continue. The development of a ritual by a family is an index of the common interest of its members in the family as a group. Rituals make the family feel good about itself."

Although there are a wide gamut of dynamics in family life, I believe family rituals and traditions act as the glue and buffer to keep families bonded and rise above negative components. Over the years, I have talked with many people about childhood traditions and have always noted that most of them were simple and sweet yet remained very sacred to them. I remember a family down the street that went camping every month along with being very close to extended family. I've known people who headed to the summer lake for a month to beat the heat living in a rustic cabin and loving it. In my own childhood that had its share of dysfunction, I can look back at the seasonal activities that we always did - Valentine's Day cards, dyed Easter eggs, swam at neighbor's pool (and raided the freezer in search of mini frozen Snicker bars reserved for the parents!), back-to-school shopping (even though it was always too hot to wear what we bought the first month of school!), trick-or-treating (dumping out the candy after and trading with my sisters), eating my grandma's homemade pumpkin pie with whipped cream at Thanksgiving, excursions into San Francisco for Christmas, my grandmother visiting from Grand Junction, Colorado and anticipating seeing the white box with gold lettering from Enstrom Candies which contained the best English Toffee ever (still available!). Of course childhood Christmas memories wouldn't be complete without mentioning the Sear's Wish Book. It was a thick catalog that had everything a child could ever want from dolls to bikes to sleds and clothes. It wasn't really the material aspect that was special - it was yet another symbol of the holiday season…that everything - even if for just the month of December - would be happier, brighter…more magical.

I believe the one main memory that resonates with my family and our small extended family was the annual vacation in August to La Jolla in the San Diego area. We packed up the car and headed down Highway 5 for a two-week stay in rented apartments or a house located near the beach. Our grandparents joined us from Philadelphia, along with my aunt, uncle and cousin. In addition, a few other families vacationed there at the same time so we saw them every year. Although we did fun excursions to tourist attractions, it was the simpler things that made it so special. Every morning we would take a beach walk - before the beach came alive with the crowds and the scent of coconut sun tan lotion floated through the air. We would spend the afternoons at the beach - hanging out, rafting, body surfing and then walk to the "Speedy Mart" for a slurpee or ice cream treat. Towards the end of our stay, we would have the annual family art contest - we made creatures out of things collected at the beach (and some Elmer's Glue). Thank goodness my Grandmother helped me since I did not inherit her artistic talent. My Uncle was the MC and he had a good time hamming it up. After two weeks in La Jolla, they stayed with us for two weeks making this was very sacred time. It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized that one of the big reasons La Jolla was so special to me was that it was really where I got to know my Grandparents since they lived on the East Coast until we were teenagers.

Originally, Ms. Winn's concerns were centered on the distraction television caused families. With so many pressures and distractions (many more "screens") vying for children's attention, it is even more imperative for families to try hard to create solid traditions and rituals. Yet, it seems that parents feel like technology has taken over - games systems, texting and online games are far more interesting to their kids than board games, outside activities or even being on a sports team. Yet, to some degree, it seems like parents need to take responsibility since many are also plugged into their own technology - cell phones, Facebook, laptop, etc. This is very noticeable at kids' games or activities - parents are texting or talking on their cell phones (it isn't just the teenagers). A few years ago, my daughter asked me why parents bring a pile of paperwork to the soccer or baseball game...or talk on their phone the whole game..and that maybe they just shouldn't come. Unfortunately, with the entire family plugged in, the end result is a lack of effort and awareness, and subsequently, a loss of traditions.

Ms. Winn's main points focus on how television changed the focus of family and traditions...and how it got worse with multiple televisions in homes since this allowed family members to watch different programs separately. These concerns can be transferred to the powerful effect of the newer technology that has caused a lot of separation and isolation for both children and adults. Yet, with conscious effort, it is possible to resurrect family ritual making especially if children are put at the top of the list (which might mean parents have to forgo their own interests to some degree). When I talk to families, I enjoy hearing that there has been a resurgence in playing board games (interestingly enough - they are the same games played decades ago), riding bikes, taking hikes, heading to local football or baseball game, participating in community service, helping out at school/sports teams, along with participation in Boy Scouts (in its 102nd year) and Girl Scouts (in its 101th year). Perhaps it is how time is managed or the possible impact from the downward economy that helped families get a bit back to basics. For our blended family, our annual trip to the Lair of the Bear family camp in Pinecrest, CA, has become my La Jolla memory for my children, stepchildren and husband - it is treasured all year long and is its own oasis when we are there every June. The beach activities I did as a child have been replaced with ghost stories and s'mores, Blue Review, boating, disco bingo, pool parties, Capture the Flag, campfires, mountain air...and the wonderful friendships that grow richer every year. Just as we talked about La Jolla all year round growing up, it is priceless to hear our children talk about the Lair year round...their own" jewel" in the middle of the woods!

Time is precious and in a blink of an eye another year has passed is time to take hold of whatever time we have and make the small moments add up...because those will be the little nuggets of gold that will be remembered, cherished and passed on.

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