Friday, February 13, 2009

Family Traditions

Growing up, there were certain things that helped define my immediate family; some of them go back into distant memory.

The earliest tradition was the trip to the Grandparent's house. The trip itself took a couple hours along winding back roads. The high light of this trip was being the first person to see the large, illuminated blue eagle that decorated a tall building in Concord, NH.

There was much clambering around in the back seat as the city drew near...I can remember the slightly claustrophobic feeling of the back seat like it was yesterday; the hampering seat belt, the squirming bodies of my younger brothers and the way their hair lifted in the air from the open windows. On car rides, the middle seat was fought over, because the lucky person could lean forward and converse with mom and dad.

Normally a ride to the Grandparent's house meant it was a holiday. During holidays certain things were sure to happen, like Aunt Karen bringing her rightly famous lemon bars and pumpkin pie for dessert.

In addition, there would be a battle for decibel control between the kids watching TV and the adults trying to talk. We watched a lot of nature shows at the Grandparent's house, I remember the thrill of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom and the eerie world of Dr. Who. We wouldn't be able to hear the show well, due to the animated conversation of the adults still seated around the dining table, and so would turn the TV up; the adults would simply talk louder.This usually ended in Grandpa bellowing at us to turn the thing off and sometimes we were banished to the attic or outside; we being the swarm of cousins that were in attendance.

Most of us grandchildren were arranged in age by tiers, as though our aunts and uncles had somehow agreed to produce grandchildren in measured stages. I was one of the oldest group of grandchildren and the only girl for some years. We were used to ruling the roost but faced serious challenges from the next tier down, who liked to mouth off and tempt fate.

We ranged far and wide in the wooded hills, along the back trails to the power lines and the gardens up in the woods, where Grandpa was prone to garden with a pistol in case of bears. We shouted like Indians and stalked like wild cats, we ran in and out of the house like a pack of wolves and always left with things to eat in hand.

If there was barbecuing in the picture, Grandpa traditionally charred the chicken. I grew up thinking this perfectly normal and developed a taste for the burned bits. If it was summer, frequently a game of wiffle ball was organized on the front lawn. In any weather, a hike up the trail to the power lines always happened after eating the huge spread of the holiday dinner.

Also, inevitably, Grandma would rush around the kitchen, the aunts would command her to sit down and let them help and she would refuse and there would be much fussing around in the kitchen along those lines. There was a cookie jar always full in the kitchen; this was one of the best things in life. I loved the spicy cinnamon bite of the windmill cookies and the sweet, white frosting on the chewy raisin cookies.

One of the most venerable tradition in my family is the telling of the Soup Story. This could be called for by the advent of any soup, but most strongly connected to the ground beef stew my mother often made and that is now a comfort food among my siblings and I. We would demand the Soup Story noisily and Dad was the one who told it.

It had many versions over the years but the simple version was always my favorite, that of the tired and worn soldier returning home through the deep woods and stopping for shelter at the home of a greedy old woman, who was outwitted in a beautifully ironic twist of fate.

Additionally, it became tradition to always hold hands during the blessing and unfailingly, someone would squeeze one of the hands they were holding and that person would then be obliged to pass the squeeze along. This happened without any kind of organization and so there could be countless hand squeezing making their way around the table under cover of the prayer, in conflicting directions and rhythms and the point, I believe, was to distract Dad.

Birthdays were celebrated by the birthday child choosing what they wanted for dinner and by a homemade cake that Mom spent a great deal of time and energy on. She made beautiful and amazing cakes, her most recent that I know of being a beach with Lego pirates hunting down the treasure; there was an x marking the spot, a palm tree and a shark off the coast, lying in wait. Birthday presents were usually more imaginative than expensive; for many years Jesse and I traded back and forth a velveteen red bull that we both loved.

During dinner, unavoidably, colorful stories of every one's best experiences in the health care field will be shared, to Mom's unending dismay. Featured among these stories is Dad's "Will We Ever See the Washcloth Again?" story and my "Storming the Kitchen at Dinner" story and Scot has had many recent additions and frankly, can best us all, I think especially of the "Bowel Surgery Gone Horribly Wrong" story.

The playing of Rook is a long established and especially important family custom. My earliest memories of Rook are of Mom and Dad rushing around tidying up and then later, having people over and tempting goodies on the table, and how intent the adults were and the smell of coffee, and hearing someone cheerful call out, "Rook bird, Rook bird!" and "Lead out, on Kinky Turtle!" was often uttered happily, its meaning lost to me at the time. It was during Rook that I had my first taste of coffee; I learned to play by watching over my parent's shoulders, careful to keep my face empty of expression.

Memorably, we played during summer vacations in Maine, during rainy days. I was often paired with Dad, who played fast and loose and viciously; his take no prisoners tactics so enraged us that at times we would slam our cards down and refuse to play the hand out. Mom was a careful, focused player who didn't say much but could suddenly and unexpectedly decimate the other team and was the calm and steady partner.

Garage sales also featured in our lives, especially during summer vacations. It was very difficult for my parents to pass one up and some of my favorite toys and a great deal of our family home was decorated from garage sale finds.

Whatever house we lived in, it always looked as though we had always lived there, due to my parent's decorating ability; we tended toward the shabby chic, with colored glass bottles in the windows, unframed pictures on the walls, a piece of ancient farm equipment over the mantelpiece. There were lots of lamps, many without light bulbs-spots with good light were premium real estate in the family home, as we all read.

Books were everywhere, all mixed up. There were piles of them beside beds, books in boxes, books overflowing their shelves. Favorite books would disappear, only to resurface months or even years later.

CDs did the same; in fact, I am certain that our home is where bad CDs went to be punished, a veritable CD purgatory. They never stayed in their cases; one never knew what might be in a case; nothing, the wrong CD or possibly two back to back, as though desperate for protection. No matter how one tried to hold on to a favorite CD, the day would come when it couldn't be found and it might never be found again.

No matter where we lived, we were surrounded by the beautiful gardens that my father made, whether there be cherry tomatoes growing up and over the gateway, or flowers overflowing their pots, or brick walkway laid down by hand. No matter how tired Mom would be, there would be dinner waiting on the stove, lids on to keep it warm; Mexican chicken, stir fried beef or stroganoff.

Going home, I know the towels in the bathroom will always be slightly damp, there will always be milk, butter and bread; (a little plate with crumbs and an empty glass always meant that my brother Scot had had his usual meal of toast and milk there, while reading.) There is always a book one had forgotten about sitting around on a side table or on the stairs. The windows will be open, the curtains moving in the breeze, the dishes mismatched but each one beautiful in it's own way and with its own history and there will be plants everywhere, on windowsills and in sunny corners and sooner or later, someone will always say, "Let's go rent a movie..." That's home.


. Becca . said...

Garage sales are a summer staple! I LOVE 'em! I just skimmed this post, Noah just woke up as I clicked over to your blog, but I'll be back tonight to read over it again :)

Caitlin said...

Nice post! :) Thanks for the congrats!

Rebecca said...

What great memories!

KJ said...

Hi Jenny! This is Kimberly M. I just love the way you write and how you capture life so beautifully in words! And this post made me homesick for my childhood and playing Run, Sheep, Run! at Fairwood, or imaginative games with "Scotty", or being slightly scared and in awe of "Timmy" :) I love your family and the few faint, but happy memories of you guys from years gone by!