Members of my family all grew up near the ocean. Whenever we are able to get to the shore, we each take a big sniff and announce, “Smells like the ocean.” Tradition? I guess, if you understand “tradition” as being something that is repeated with significance beyond the actual act, something that brings long-held family experiences up to the present.
Holidays are especially magical when it comes to family traditions—certain foods, table settings, gift-giving practices, and other events. My own family seems to have a lot of traditions around food—not too surprising—many of us have special foods we make only certain times of year or for special holidays. I have an old-fashioned grinder that I grew up using as a child, which we only used to make fresh cranberry relish. I used the grinder with my children and they now each have grinders of the same type, and create the same fresh cranberry-orange-apple relish to enjoy with Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.
We have a brown-handled knife that is great for cutting cheese, potatoes and apples, but not so good at cutting small children’s fingers.
It was my grandmother’s knife, and I use it almost every day. When my children were learning to cook, it was a “real” knife they could use to help me make dinner. My grandchildren now use this same knife to help me make apple pies. My grandgirl wonders why her mother doesn’t have a knife like this. She thinks every kitchen should have a brown-handled knife just like Grandma’s!
My brother Rob and his family have lived all over the country; he’s in the Coast Guard, so like many military families, they have been transferred often. I heard about some of the things they as a family do to celebrate birthdays, but I’d never gotten to visit for a birthday celebration. Never, until recently.
During this visit I was overwhelmed with the sense of all the family traditions that connect us, as well as the family traditions they have created for themselves in the years they have traveled in the military. We sat down to eat dinner and my sister-in-law Hester handed us cloth napkins, of the same type that my mother made by the dozen, along with napkin rings to help keep track of whose napkins was whose. Napkin rings were something my mother introduced to our family when I was a child, and Mom delighted in explaining to friends and family the virtues of napkin rings. As Hester passed out her own selection of whimsical napkin rings for us to choose from, I was transported back to the dining room of my childhood, my mother standing at the table distributing the wooden rings she’d collected, and used for the same purpose.
When we went to bed I glanced in the closet and spied about a dozen coat hangers covered in knotted yarn. Yes, we were related—I still have some coat hangers of the same type. My mother made these by the dozen; in fact she brought coat hangers along on our family trips to my grandmother’s. The 13-hour drive was tedious for all of us, and knotting coat hangers with yarn was a mindless but useful activity that kept us kids busy for at least a few of the many, many hours it took to reach Pensacola each summer.
“Oh yes,” Rob said, “Hester makes those coat hangers all the time.” I’m not sure I could remember how to make them, but I was able to explain to my brother that it was our great-grandmother who made the coat hangers originally. My brother is younger than I am and has no clear memories of Grandma Dado, but being older, I knew that she had made these hangers. Another family tradition.
It was at breakfast the next morning when I experienced a distinctive tradition that originated with my brother’s family. I suspect it may continue with his children’s families in the years to come. I’d heard about these events, but had never experienced it in person.
Rob greeted us in the kitchen as we helped make breakfast pancakes. He was headed to the store. “We need whipped cream out of the can. It’s required,” he said. I knew ice cream was part of their birthday breakfast tradition, but the whipped cream was news to me. I was soon to learn more.
Hester assembled several small glass dishes and started cutting up candy pieces, dumped gummy bears into dishes, as well as chocolate-and-peanut-butter sweets. My husband cooked some pancakes, but we soon learned that pancakes or waffles are simply vehicles to carry all the fixings that are added to them. Chocolate syrup, other “fun food” along with chopped fruit, chocolate pieces and more were piled high onto Briana’s plate, the birthday girl. It was a delayed birthday celebration, but no less solemn in its execution.
Briana smiled. “It’s what you have to do!” But there was more. Rob pulled out the ice cream, then the whipped cream. And the last tradition became clear. Yes, ice cream goes on pancakes for birthday celebrations. But the whipped cream? It goes directly into open mouths.
I got the sense that sometimes the whipped cream isn’t aimed with particular care. We got a few pictures, but I think our presence restrained some of the more riotous behavior. It was all in fun, but cloth napkins came in handy to clean up some of the mess.
Family traditions: not always neat and clear, often not really predictable or consistent.
But the memories, the connections between years, between generations, between families—they provide so much more than simple experience. The bonds they create can last a lifetime, and, if you’re really lucky, even beyond our own lives, onto the coming generations.
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, More Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, and editor of Easy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed. Just out is her latest book, Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are. She has been a freelance writer for numerous local, regional, and national publications for the past 20+ years, has helped numerous families to save their stories, and has recorded multiple veterans oral histories, now housed at the Library of Congress. She is a co-author of the recent community history, Bellingham Now and Then.