My mom had a serious creative streak. She was excellent at engaging us in unique, sometimes unusual but always brain and creativity stimulating activities. One year she took us to a kite making class at the metro parks. For a few years at Christmas time, she would go out and buy industrial sized rolls of white newspaper so we could make our own wrapping paper. She would cut potatoes in half, and use Christmas cookie cutters to stencil onto the potato half and create a stamp. We would then dip our potato stamps in various Christmas-y colors and make our own wrapping paper by stamping the white rolls of paper. She would also have us help her make different types of Christmas cookies, and then we would place them in brown lunch bags we had decorated and take them to neighbors.
One year about two months before Thanksgiving, my mom placed a big glass jar on our coffee table, and cut up little white strips of paper and placed them next to it. She then ceremoniously announced that each family member was charged with writing things they were thankful for, and placing it in the jar, to be read at family dinner on Thanksgiving. It is a great memory of mine, sitting around and greedily awaiting my turn at the Thanksgiving dinner table that year to pull out a slip of paper and see what everybody was thankful for. It ranged from the profound to the humorous…my brother was only about six at the time, so he was thankful for things like gum and his bike.
We were always busy, and our little hands were always engaged in something. My mom led by example as well. She learned how to basket weave and piled our house to the ceiling with various kinds of gift baskets, bread baskets, and easter baskets. She took a stained glass class, and the following year our house was filled with stained glass sun catchers. When she got a little bit better, our house started filling up with stained glass lamps. She made ornaments from dough and baked them in the oven. She made sugared, candy Easter eggs every year that were hollowed out in the middle and filled with Easter scenes and bunnies in gardens (I was obsessed with creating worlds out of these little scenes and spinning them into tales for my brother). She cross-stitched, crocheted, and knitted. She made our Halloween costumes by hand (see picture in which I’m made up, appropriately, as a little witch. Conversely, my sister is looking very angelic and pink as a princess). I can’t even repair a hem, but this is beside the point…I sometimes think she found crafts for us to do just to keep us out of her hair and her own craft supplies. Whatever her reasons, I remember her craftiness and creativity with us as some of the best times of my childhood.
My mom was never big on a Christmas ham or turkey dinner. In fact, our Christmases were always very intimate and private, because my mom just wasn’t big on getting in the car and driving around to family dinners. I grew up like this, and so this is generally the kind of holiday I like as well. I always feel kind of overwhelmed by my husband’s big, raucous and loud Italian Christmases with lasagna and homemade liquor being passed around. He has accused me in the past of being antisocial at such functions, but really I’m just accustomed to a different kind of family gathering. Not to mention I’m not much for sausage lasagna at Christmas. Instead, my mom always made a Christmas Eve brunch. My grandma and her lifelong “friend” Karl would come over around 11 am, and by then the house would be full of the smell of homemade cinnamon buns (no pillsbury in my mom’s house) in the oven, sausage and potatoes and onions on the stove, and various kinds of egg-y quiche breakfast dishes and sweets. It was always just the seven of us, my grandma and Karl, and my mom and dad and us three kids. It’s such a pleasant childhood memory of mine from each year, and it forged in me a love of more intimate family gatherings.
When I was young, our birthdays were commemorated with my Mom making a special meal, just for the birthday boy or girl. We were allowed to pick out anything we wanted and she would make it, homemade, for dinner. We also got to pick out our birthday cake flavors, and she would bake them from scratch. As is always the case with children, I took this gesture for granted. So many of my friends went out for pizza for their birthdays, which I was always envious of, but I know now how much more special my Mom’s methods of family celebration were. I never ate a store bought cake in my entire childhood, which I realize now was such a labor of love from my Mom. I barely have time to run to the store to buy a cake these days…She put so much effort and time into creating birthday meals for us, and I want to do that for my own children.
My Mom always went out and got us our own ornament for the Christmas tree each year, with the understanding that they would be turned over to us as adults. It was such a wonderful idea, because as I got older, each ornament reminded me of a particular phase in my life (i.e. one year she got me a tiny silver violin, because I had started playing it that year). I would only make one tiny change: I think I wouldn’t hand it over to my own children until they were married or settled somewhere. My Mom gave me most of mine when I was 18, and tragically, I lost some of them in the chaos of college and moving every year.
My Mom was so great at things like this: when I was about seven, she made us start doing our own monthly newsletter for our extended family. Mind you, this was in the days before easy desktop publishing software: she made a template by hand, and would then load it into her typewriter and type out all of our stories. We were each responsible for writing a few small articles on what was happening in our family, which obviously evolved depending on our ages (there were three of us, three years apart each). I enjoyed writing a little column on weird facts I could dig up in the encyclopedia (ah, the pre-internet days). I think about it now so fondly, and how much I would love to receive something like that from my niece (and future nieces and nephews) or any of the children in my family. It’s such a beautiful way to share with extended family members, and the idea that she made us do all of the work made it more meaningful. I can’t even imagine how much easier this would be now with technological innovations in computers and software. In any event, I would love to pass this on to my own children someday.
No wonder I went on to be a writer and English major!
My mom served us homemade meals, without fail, every night for 15 years. It was a rule that we sit together as a family (before it was recommended by “experts” to do so) each night and share a dinner. Food is the centerpiece of so many good memories from growing up, and it begins with sharing it at the dinner table. Being an adult now, I know the incredible amount of work it must have taken my Mom to prepare meals 7 days a week, and change them up enough that a family of five never got bored or complained. Although I hope to have a wee bit more help from my husband as the years go by and my family expands, I would love to honor the very meaningful gift of connection, communication and family respect that my Mom gave me in sitting us down to those meals every day.
part of a military family that I’ve really started to think about what the concept of family means. The further I get in proximity from “home,” the more I crave things that root me, and give me a sense of where I come from. When everything is always in flux, from learning the geographical layout of a new city every year, to settling into yet another new house—one begins to crave something, anything that will feel permanent or provide a sense of constancy.
This is, ironically, where I found my voice in the immigration “issue” in the US. Suddenly, I had an inkling of why so many people come to this country, and fight so hard to preserve their own traditions and customs: it gives one a sense of home. It replicates the feelings of comfort, security and belonging when everything else has radically shifted and become foreign. My own experience gave me ground to stand on when my friends and family complained that all Americans should act “American” (what is that anyway?) Essentially, Americans expect those who come here to completely give up where they came from to fit in where are now. But now I feel (from a point of experience, no less) that such an imperative is impossible! I felt I understood a small slice of culture/family preservation in my second year as a military spouse. My surroundings became more and more alien to me as I experienced different regions and subcultures of the US, from Nevada to Oklahoma to North Dakota, and I began to wish more and more for pieces of home. Anything. And I felt that familiar comfort in an activity as simple as cooking my Mom’s chicken and noodles. Chopping the vegetables, the smell of simmering onions, it brought me back to where I came from.
So, essentially, I’d like to try and outline some of those customs from my family here. My Mom and Dad, and my grandma and my aunts, provided me with my own little subculture that I hope to carry with me everywhere I go. It will be the only way I have to carve out my own sense of family in strange and ever changing places.