Our Lives: How family traditions are created

John Valentine.
John Valentine.

Rounding the corner on a shadowy country road near dawn, walking on a cool transitioning-to-fall Tuesday morning, I felt quiet company over my left shoulder.

And there she was, the setting Harvest Moon, the moon that always reminds me that like it or not, changes are coming. Shorter days, longer, cooler, darker nights. And lots of festivity to keep up with.

We enter the rapid-fire, nearly never-ending tour of traditions, something my sweetly sentimental family is very big on as the row of well-worn holiday boxes in the attic can attest. There’s no turning back as every calendar page heralds another eventful weekend.

Like a colorful, winding row of dominoes toppling in slow motion, events are anticipated, decorated, celebrated and perpetuated in all their glory, then it’s on to the next one. In the old days, with sleep-deprived Mom and Dad in their own crawl-to-catch-up mode, any event that happened on or around a holiday one year had to be repeated the next holiday season, almost like extra innings or overtime. Traditions accumulated, fun was had over ever-extending periods of time.

Every young family develops their own routines, sometimes for simplicity, sometimes for identity, sometimes for survival, always for togetherness, always for fun. We loved the orange-to-brown-to-red-and-green swaths of background, we loved the seasonal soundtracks, although to be honest, I lost the Wee Sing Singalong cassettes on purpose. We loved all the costumes and signifying props. We loved, and still do, all the baking and sprinkles. Nanny’s cranberry bread, the Super Bowl gingerbread house teardown, and gummy bears with Momo and “Cat in the Hat” with Gunda.

But what I loved the most were the traditions that sprang up on their own, things we did once or twice and then the next year, when our daughters remembered them, and lobbied for them, became traditions as in, “We always do that.”

Our kids grew up in the woods. While we often drove to town in search of new slides and merry-go-rounds, we also explored the tree stumps, meandering paths and rock piles around the house. With no city lights diluting the significant sky, celestial events were very special.

Early on, meteor shows ruled, the Perseids in August, the Leonids in November. Homework and dishes had to be done, the sky had to be clear, and gathering all the sleeping bags, quilts, and snacks (what’s a tradition without snacks?) had to be a team effort. Family tradition called for loading everything in the bed of the Ford Ranger, inviting the dogs to run beside us, and heading to an old tobacco field deeper in the woods.

“It felt like a crazy thing we all did almost in secret together,” my younger daughter says with a laugh, recalling the bumpy truck ride with flashlights in the middle of the night. We would wait 20 minutes for our eyes to adjust and then the sky would silently explode, no audio just our own ooh’s and ahh’s. We were in luck if there was no moon and no rain. Anticipating, packing up, cuddling together, seeing airplane wing lights, hearing the night sounds were timeless, treasured moments.

My older daughter’s favorite tradition was the Magic Shelf. The Magic Shelf knew things, it knew what you wanted, and it knew when you really needed something, sometimes even before you knew yourself! The small wooden shelf was in my closet, ignored until I would announce randomly at dinner, “Has anyone checked the Magic Shelf recently?” Boom! Chaos would ensue as the kids raced out of the room. “It wasn’t so much what we got, it was just that it was there, in the house,” explained my oldest daughter.

“It wasn’t about a new puzzle, a bag of hair ties, or a purple My Little Pony, it was about the lore itself of the Magic Shelf. Can we bring that one back?” she laughed. A later domestic invention of mine, The Box of Lost Socks, was received with considerably less enthusiasm.

With our eagerly urban daughters sharing the moons in D.C., and Oakland, Calif., and all the super moons this summer, my wife decided to add one tradition just for the two of us. In July, according to our Farmer’s Almanac, the sun would be setting in the west at the same time the full moon would be rising in the east. Now that’s some cosmic, feel-good energy. We remembered one of our favorite rural car ride destinations from years back, Maple View Farm on Rocky Ridge Road in Orange County.

So there we sat, with our ice cream, with all the people. The rockers were standing room only, and the ice cream cone line was out the door. The sloping green lawn was a playground of smiles, quilts, picnics and games. Weaving among clouds, a golden summer sun set as a bold white moon rose over the country store and framed the scene of our latest family tradition.