The Fabric of Family    


Lane Dooling

© Copyright 2018 by Lane Dooling

Annual Family trip to La Jolla, CA.

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 define the backdrop of family life. Like myself, 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 - golden 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 – with some envy– the Lang Family down the street went camping every month in addition to being very close to a large extended family, especially their eccentric aunts. It was easy to see how camping and quality time with their family were positive fibers woven into their family life. In my own childhood, I can look back at the seasonal activities that we always did – and it helped having these things to look forward to.

The year started out with Valentine's Day – either buying or making Valentine’s Day cards. Of course this was even more fun if one of us had a crush on a boy at school, along with the Valentine’s Day Party. We also did art projects at school so we could present our mother with a “homemade” valentine. At Easter time, the night before we dyed Easter eggs at the kitchen table (of course with newspaper on it since it was white), and received chocolate bunnies, jelly beans and small gifts in our plastic Easter baskets (of course each of us had a different color). My mother usually made a special dessert – my favorite year was when she made a bunny cake using a lot of coconut and the ears were cardboard. Although our weather in Marin County (suburb of San Francisco) was not too harsh, we did have seasonal rain. I always knew when the warmer season had come when I saw my mother rummaging around her sewing room (not exactly kept neat) taking our summer clothes out of big bags that she had stored them in for the winter months. Spring had sprung…

My sisters and I liked school but we always looked forward to summer vacation for many reasons. Looking back, it was special to grow up in the days long before technology was born - when TV had about seven stations (no reason to stay inside during the day), phones were attached to the wall, “games” came with a board, dice and fake money, and there were other kids in the neighborhood (no need to “set up” playdates). A fragrant gentle breeze of honeysuckle hung in the air throughout the summer, and the few hot days rolled into lovely evenings bathing us in a comfortable warmth (no sweater needed) as we avoided fireflies and mosquitoes. Our summer traditions were simple – decades later, I can still smell the musty odor of the dry brown grass behind our friend’s house as we slid down the big hill on cardboard. Believe me - a steep hill with slippery dry grass and cardboard is a recipe for a wild ride! Other evenings were spent playing Red Rover, Spud, etc.

The days were not structured as we define them today with camps, lessons, etc., but every day was busy enough and active with an abundance of fresh air and exercise. We rode our bikes to the park or school, hung out at friends’ houses, took our roller skates to the school (we lived on a hill so needed to head to flat land), walked to the “little store” for a treat (we were lucky that our mother had a sweet tooth –happy to give us money as long as we brought her something back). Some afternoons we went up the tennis club and went swimming (to be honest – I think the only reason we belonged to this club was so my father could play tennis…didn’t have to do with us being able to use the pool – but were appreciative nonetheless). Of course a few summers, we got in a bit of trouble when the monthly bill at the snack bar was high (yikes!)…I believe it was because we charged a lot of candy. We spent some Fourth of Julys at the club for the afternoon where they had races, games, food, etc., but our most special tradition for a number of years was to go to the home of my parent’s friends to watch the fireworks. Their home was on a lagoon so the backyard looked out on a body of water. We played in the water all afternoon, had a BBQ and when the sun finally went down and the skies grew dark, a wonderful display of brightly colored fireworks lit up the skies – it was so patriotic and breathtaking.

Yet…even though all of us kids in the neighborhood enjoyed the seasonal traditions, we were definitely aware of issues in everyone’s families. My mother was known to be a yeller (most likely because of my parents’ strained marriage). Quite a few of the other parents were strict or yellers, and there were marital issues, drinking issues, smokers, death in the family, etc. But, I believe our childhood camaraderie and underdeveloped understanding and empathy helped below the surface as one year rolled into the next.

Before we headed back to school, our most treasured family tradition happened – our annual vacation in August to La Jolla (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 from Arizona vacationed there at the same time so we saw them every year. In our younger years we did fun excursions to Disneyland, Old Town and Sea World, but 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. My sisters, cousin and I spent most of the time with our mother, grandmother and aunt. My father and uncle would play tennis and my quiet grandpa would go for a hike or go to a restaurant overlooking the cove, order a martini and read his book. When we were older, we would spend the afternoons at the beach with our friends - 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. Despite the fact that my father and aunt argued about politics (a lot), it did not dampen this magical time…we learned to ignore it for the most part. I knew our time was almost up when we would go the Scripps’s Aquarium with grandma and she would by us a few shells in the gift shop and some items for her classroom. This simple act reminded me she would be back to teaching in less than a month…and it would another year until we saw them again.

The second part of this wonderful tradition was after two weeks in La Jolla, my grandparents stayed with us for two weeks. 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. By the end of August, they had to head home and we were so sad my mother took us back-to-school shopping (even though it was always too hot to wear what we bought the first month of school!) – I realized years later this was our introduction to “retail therapy”. But, at the time, it provided a distraction to missing our grandparents.

By mid October, Fall had arrived and the weather was cooler. Deciding on a Halloween costume was fun and we were fortunate to have a mother who could sew our Halloween costumes. I have to admit she was a bit judgmental about the store bought costumes our neighbors wore which surprised me since we knew it was because their mother didn’t sew (and they didn’t seem to mind one bit). One of our best Halloween costumes was Raggedy Ann – and she made three for them (complete with the red “hair” made out of dyed stringy mops). After trick-or-treating, our tradition was to dump out the candy –discarding anything “suspicious” or unwrapped – then we would trade with each other. Of course we would offer my mother the Reese’s Peanut Butter cups. I still remember my mother buying the regular size candy bars to pass out (and we hoped there would be leftovers).

Thanksgiving always included eating my grandma's homemade pumpkin pie with whipped cream. When my grandmother was in her mid 80’s, she actually bought a frozen pumpkin pie – it was then when we realized she had really slowed down from the previous year. Since this never happened, it took us by surprise and was so upsetting to my oldest sister – she cried on the way home. I believe it took me a little while longer to realize that she was not her peppy self anymore…and, within a few years she passed away. I felt the need to continue her tradition, so I make the pumpkin pies every year (and my sister is very appreciative). And, to this day, we associate homemade pumpkin pie with our beloved grandmother.

I would say the holiday season in December ran a close second to our summer traditions. Of course childhood Christmas memories wouldn't be complete without mentioning the Sear's Wish Book. Looking through page after page of all the toys and bikes was like entering a fantasy world. 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. A very special tradition was a visit from our other grandmother from Grand Junction, Colorado. We didn’t do anything extraordinary but we did the same things each year – watched game shows, went shopping, watched Lawrence Welk, went to church and spent Christmas together. One of the most anticipated traditions was the white box with gold lettering from Enstrom Candies she took out of her suitcase which contained the best English Toffee ever (still available!). We nibbled on the toffee for the next few weeks savoring every bite. Since my parents were at work during the day, it was nice to have time with her alone. And, I remember that she treated me as if I was older which was a big deal since I was the youngest of three and always considered “the baby” (and “mom’s favorite”).

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. I am often envious when I read stories or watch a show that takes place during the Days of Radio that have the entire family gathered around the radio listening to their favorite shows. This scenario is extremely different than the interactions families have today. Yet, as I ponder the simplicity of my childhood traditions, I am hopeful that it is possible to resurrect family ritual making.

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 and Girl Scouts. 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, evening shows by the staff, 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!

No one’s family life is perfect and our world seems to be growing more complex and troublesome. But as in past decades, if we pull together as a family and community, we can try and make things better. 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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