“Oh! There are gifts on the mantel!” She says as she drops her backpack and coat on the way in from school. In her most educator-like voice, the third-grade big sister informs the pre-k little brother, “every day while we are at school, Mom wraps gifts and puts them on the mantel, and then on the third Sunday of Advent when we decorate for Christmas, we move the gifts to under the tree.”
This is the pre-k little brother’s first year to be at school all day every day of the week, and he rests in the big sister’s assurance that “there will be more every day when we get home,” and I listen from the kitchen, unaware that this habit was anything more than convenience. Apparently, we now have a full-blown tradition.
My mind flashes back to Thanksgiving week, and I have awoken Monday morning with a migraine the likes of which will keep me in bed, carefully requesting only the things that sound palatable: hot coca cola like my dad used to make at home and tortilla chips. My husband is afraid maybe this migraine is actually Covid-19, so he keeps his distance until we know that I’m not contagious. I can overhear him in the kitchen, explaining to the kids why we will celebrate Thanksgiving this year with just our family, since there’s been an uptick in Covid cases, and we don’t want to accidentally carry the virus from school to our relatives. “Mom will make a menu of foods and a grocery order, and we’ll work together to make all the foods we love.” “There has to be those tiny pickles that we always have at Nonie’s house! It’s tradition!” A daughter says it…and I smile. Whatever makes this disappointment palatable.
Several weeks earlier, an ice storm has hit our city, and the power lines at church have fallen onto the parking lot, making it unsafe for parishioners to gather. We instead attend the church of our dearest friends, and after the service one says to us “was this really weird?” She means that we have stepped back in time, into a tradition my husband’s priesthood calling took us out of many years before, and she knows that much of the way we worship now is very different. There are robes and candles and prayer books, and everything is old. But I say to her “no, it felt like home,” because she knows that home isn’t somewhere you always want to be, but it is the place where your spiritual palate is made.
“We are making a stop on the way home from school, because Mrs. Johnson has Covid, and they needed me to pick up some groceries,” I say to my kids as they pile into our SUV, masks dropping to the ground, backpacks thrown over the seat into the trunk, someone’s seatbelt sticking and the music already being changed. “Can’t they just order groceries?” The daughter doesn’t ask it maliciously, only honestly, and I am overwhelmed with an emotion I cannot yet place. Can’t they just order groceries. Like we do. Like they do, too. Why am I delivering these groceries? I answer, “well, I asked if there was anything they needed, and she said they needed bread, and so we’re taking bread to them, and also I made chicken soup for her, too.” And I think to myself, no matter how grateful I am for grocery delivery services, I never want to stop taking bread and soup to people. What I thought was just convenience though, had become normal. Is taking food to people still the traditional act of service?
When my kids went back to school, the frenzy of life we all rested from in the spring, in many ways came right back into full swing. Volleyball games and work, lunches to pack and laundry to iron, and feeling like margin of rest is something we have to fight for. Audiobooks were necessary for me again because there’s no time available to sit with a book. And with teenagers as part of the family makeup, I’m back to hoping for one, maybe two meals with all eight of us around the table each week.
“What time will everyone be home today?” I light the family group text up with this simple question. “I’m making homemade pizza.” The son replies “Oh, bet! I forgot it was Thursday. Home by 5:30.” Thursday? Do I always make pizza on Thursday? It’s all making sense in my mind how closely habit and tradition are actually intertwined in the hearts of my children. Tradition is the season of Advent, and Baby Jesus placed in the creche at midnight mass, the wise men still far away until Epiphany. And tradition is what family does again and again, for ourselves and for others, to make our palates once again taste love.
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