We often look at tradition as a one-dimensional thing. I have seen this element of our lives from different vantage points – as a martial art teacher of many years and as a member of the military, on the honor guard at two of my postings. But my greatest lessons in tradition come from my childhood.
I learned what I really know from my parents and my grandparents. And I’m still learning those lessons as I look back on those times.
I find it interesting that we see continued degradation of the Christmas holiday in the States, yet the same intolerance is not shown for other holy days of other religions. But this is surface scrabble. Like ice after a hockey game it is only scratches on the surface of the thing – the real item, which is as hard and clear as that ice, is unchanged beneath.
Our traditions endure, if we want them to.
I remember Thanksgiving holidays at my Aunt’s house. The entire family would go, and both sets of grandparents, Swedish and Portuguese, would show up there. My father’s parents were Catholic and my mother’s were Protestant, but we were a family. There were Super Sundays and of course, Christmas, but I remember Thanksgiving distinctly because of a cedar stump.
After stuffing ourselves with the adults sitting at their table – and the children at theirs, my mother’s father would take us kids on a long walk.
It was a circuitous route, which wound through the neighborhood streets, down through a forest trail and seemed to stretch on for miles. But we’d always seem to end up at a little clearing – a sort of fairy's circle – in the center of the woods. There were patches of moss there and one simple stump from some tree long-ago cut down. My grandfather would peel off a piece of that stump each year and hand it to my sister and I.
“You smell that?” he’d ask, and we’d nod our heads. “That’s cedar,” he’d say. Every year we’d visit that stump – until it was at ground-level. And we’d visit a year or two longer, until there were no more walks at Thanksgiving, and I’d left for the promise of life in the Air Force and made room for my traditions of youth, to learn new traditions.
And there was more. My father used to take us on a drive the week of Christmas, so we could see all the lights at all the houses in the area. One street we’d leave for the last was the home of a friend of mine, Kyle Cordeiro. Kyle’s mom would decorate the house unlike anything you had ever seen. Lit up in a perfection no one else could match, the home looked like an ice-castle in the dark. We’d all agree that her light display was the best – every year, until there were no more drives at Christmas.
I miss that. I miss those drives, sitting in the back-seat of that green Ford, warm while the New England night cruised by, and the lights reflected in the window glass and our wide eyes. I am 43-years-old, and I still miss it – my father driving, his sure hands on the wheel, and somewhere out there at the end of the trip, knowing the Cordeiro’s lights would be there.
I miss the times at my father’s parents home, with his dad sitting in his chair – the smell of the cigars - the special flat Portuguese cookies, which his mom would make us. I miss talking to my Uncle Ben about fishing, admiring his amazingly perfect old fishing reels, the beautiful lures. My aunt’s clam-cakes in the perfect summers – and when she would say “ohh” and wince while cooking the eel I had caught, because the pieces would roll in the pan.
It was all tradition – and I can remember it and feel it as if it were only yesterday. It is an ache, which settles in my bones and will not shake free. I live in a desert – on the other side of the United States. I have not been back to New England for the holidays for many years, although I send a box each year. And it’s not the same. The boxes get lighter, but the memories get heavier.
I miss the cedar stump.
And all I can tell you, dear reader, is don’t get drawn into the arguments about whether the holidays are too commercialized, or whether the local government is banning this or that… it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, because we all have some kind of tradition to honor, and we can all deliver the respect it deserves, so the future generations can find their own patch of woods and their own stumps.
And someday they will walk with their grandchildren when we are all long dead. And they will pull out a worn pocketknife and peel off a piece of wood and crouch down and look into their eyes. Their coats heavy, in the cold air they’ll hold out those small pieces of wood.
“You smell that?” they’ll ask.