Thursday, December 24, 2009

Traditions and Ruts (Babble)

There are traditions, there are ruts, and then there are just unfortunate patterns that repeat themselves by no one’s choice at all.

The lovely thing about traditions is that they provide us with a familiar framework for an event that grounds us in the present while connecting us to both the past and the future.  I’m fortunate that in both violin making and playing music I feel part of some level of tradition every day.  It gives meaning to my life that I appreciate deeply.  This is not to say traditions by definition are good.  I had an argument once in college with a roommate who believed such a thing, and I told her I was sure the KKK had loads of traditions to pass on, but that didn’t make them good or worth continuing. 

Traditions can be comforting and fun, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be reexamined periodically, and there should always be room for something new.  I love handing down recipes and stories to my kids that I had as a child, but I’m just as excited about the addition of new things unique to my family.  For instance, as of this year, our family apparently needs a mirror ball in the kitchen as part of our celebration.  I’m hoping one day to see my great-grandchildren reverently unpack the family disco ball as a necessary part of the season.

Ruts are habits people get into that feel like traditions, but are really just things nobody thought enough of to change.  We have ornaments on our tree that have stories attached that we stop and admire every year, and hanging those is a tradition.  Then there are other goofy things that no one cares about, but they keep ending up in the box and they just wind up on the tree.  Those are the rut ornaments.  A few of those have managed to move up in status as the kids single them out for attention and assign meaning to them purely because they remember seeing them the year before.  Good enough for me. 

Other ruts in our season include using the same weird blanket that doubles as a painting drop cloth under the tree just because I never remember to find something nice until it’s too late, wrapping things badly because I lose patience with it, and sending cards to some people I never see or hear from because I can’t think of a good reason not to.

Then there are the unfortunate patterns.  When I was a child we drove from Detroit to Columbus, Ohio every Christmas.  The time spent with grandma and grandpa in their home, eating spritz cookies and stollen was a tradition.  The four hours of driving on dark, icy roads on Christmas Eve was just an unfortunate byproduct of that, and now I always associate the holidays a little with motion sickness.  Not my own–I don’t have that problem–but both my brothers used to rock back and forth the whole ride saying they didn’t feel good.  (Actually, one would rock and chant, and then the other would throw up.  Probably a less glamorous twin thing.)  We have been fortunate that for as long as we’ve been in our house that all the relatives have come to us, so my kids don’t associate Christmas with travel.  (That’s for Easter when we go to New York.)

My kids enjoy several unique holiday traditions (including my brother making casts of their feet every year) and some basic ones such as getting excited about Santa.  There are a lot of opinions out there about how parents deal with the Santa Claus question–whether it’s right to lie to kids, or if since it’s all in fun it’s okay.  I find it interesting because it’s not much of an issue for us.  Aden asks if Santa is real, and I tell her it’s a story some people believe and some people don’t, and she can do with it what she likes.  I don’t know if she really believes there’s a Santa, but she likes the stories and she leaves him healthy snacks (explaining he’s probably sick of cookies by the time he gets to us).  She said she saw the real Santa at a concert she went to with her class the other day, and Mona was jealous. 

However they think of it is fun for them and they don’t need me pretending to make reindeer sounds on the roof, so I leave it to them.  We don’t have specific gifts from Santa or anything along those lines, just lots of fun stuff already piled up under the tree.  We don’t put anything in their stockings until Christmas morning, so maybe they think those things are from Santa.  I don’t tell them anything one way or another and they seem fine with that.  My brother, Barrett, always dresses up at least once during the holidays in a nasty old Santa suit he got for free when he was living in the Ozarks for awhile, and it’s pretty hilarious, but the kids know it’s their uncle and he’s just being funny.  I think Aden plays along with the idea because it’s fun, but I don’t think she would be crushed if anyone told her it wasn’t true. 

There are Webkinz toys (that they’ve been looking at longingly for months in the store) for them to unwrap in the morning and modeling clay and markers and ‘jewels’ in their stockings that I know will make them happy.  The rest of the time will be about including their cousin in their endless pretend games all over the house and putting on an elaborate puppet show for everyone.  I’m hoping to make my grandmother’s spritz cookies by the light of the mirror ball.  Those are traditions Santa can’t really improve upon, so we don’t worry about him.

I’ve been reflecting on these ideas more than usual this holiday because things are in flux.  Our offer was accepted on the house across the street (YAY!), so we are on track to move in February.  (Coming soon will be the true test for those who have said, “If there is anything you need….”)  It makes saying goodbye to Ian this time that much harder, not just because I fear for him in Iraq, but because it’s the last Christmas with him in this home.  It’s also been a difficult holiday because Ian’s mother was in the hospital in a different state and he struggled with whether or not he should cut his time short with us to be with her.  After much consideration and hours on the phone arranging for appropirate care it was determined he didn’t need to fly out there, but contemplating the mortality of a parent is troubling.

For myself I would say this has been my most emotional holiday season, except I have a pretty good memory so I know better.  The Christmas during the last deployment was much harder.  In December 2006 Ian was in Iraq and we knew we wouldn’t see him again until at least August.  Quinn was just over a month old on Christmas morning and I was sleep fatigued and nursing.  The girls had just turned three and five.  One of my brothers was in the initial stages of a divorce.  My grandma was visiting for what we all suspected would be the last time before she moved into an assisted living apartment.  There were disturbing rifts within the extended family that were making us all sad. 

Yet, I always love time with my parents and my brothers and uncles and aunts and cousins even when things are not simply happy.  I think back with a strange fondness on the night my parents watched all my kids and I took a long midnight walk in the cold with both my brothers as we discussed sad, important things.  My brothers are the reason I wanted more than one child, because I can’t imagine navigating the world without siblings.

This year, aside from the worry over Ian’s mom, things are okay.  Ian will get to see his kids unwrap their gifts, both my brothers are the happiest I’ve known them in years, and I’ll have relatives to laugh with in the house all the way up to New Year’s.  The rifts within the extended family we are still sad about, but the pain associated with them have dulled a bit with time.  A cousin promised to deliver our gifts to my grandma at the nursing home on Christmas Day.  I miss my grandma.

It’s been so deliciously normal to have my husband home for a little while.  Not everything was perfect, and we did have an embarrassing failure in communication that resulted in neither of us picking up the girls after school one day (we got a call from the office, but Mona loves being there for some reason so I don’t feel too terrible), but overall it was a marvelous holiday treat to be a whole family again. 

And if Ian has to leave I think it will be good timing for him to go when he does because the kids will be distracted for a week before his absence is truly noticable.  By the time their uncles and aunt and cousin and grandparents all head back to their own states, the girls will be returning to school and jumping back into our no-daddy routine, so this transition is about as easy as I think we can make it.  But I’m hoping this whole ‘daddy in Iraq’ thing does not remain one of our recurring holiday themes.  War is a pretty lousy rut; this one has been going on for the entire time my children have been alive.  They deserve better traditions than that.

Merry Everything!  Thank you for checking in.  I am really enjoying writing this blog and feel so fortunate to have made connections to so many thoughtful people through it.  I wish you all great joy in 2010.

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