“The family – that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our innermost hearts ever quite wish to.” — Dodie Smith
I love traditions that endure. They may morph, become slightly diluted, be maintained while slightly deluded – it matters little. Traditions add dimension to the family construct, providing the shading and nuance that help complete the picture. It informs our history and clarifies elements of our future – what do I hope my children will choose to carry forward? What elements of their history and our traditions will they value and hold?
As I watched my father-in-law preside over the Seder on Monday, I was struck by the simplicity and complexity of family traditions. The delight in hearing the youngest children ask the four questions. The enthusiastic negotiations that ensue once the Afikomen has been found. My father-in-law beamed with pride, while still maintaining an air of amused gravitas. Each child kissed and congratulated for their detective work. Parents smiling so broadly – some relief undoubtedly mixed in with all that love. The miracle of generations sharing the secret recipe for creating the perfect olio that makes each family unique, its traditions singularly their own.
And as my brother-in-law referenced those who were not in attendance – his daughter and her family in LA, his mom, my mind secretly wished that my parents were still here, that there were more traditions still to be had in their home. And though this isn’t about them, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that there were memories that shone in my mind’s eye with primary-color-like clarity. I saw a picture my sister had posted with our family’s seder plate in the middle of her table, and my reaction was visceral. Can a heart turn upside down and still beat?
As I looked around the table though, I was also struck by that which was not seen. The dynamics that are tested, the hurt that only family members can inflict upon each other with or without intention. The fibers that are being stretched too thin, the ones that are in the process of being rewoven with such care to ensure they are stronger and more pliable than ever before. Each person’s story as it related to the others, replete with love, frustration, an intractable wish to be understood. These are traditions too – and though arguably not those which we choose to carry forward, they move forward with us nonetheless. Our conscious choice is what we do with them. Family dynamics are rarely enviable – they’re too complex, too imperfect, too full. At some point, we decide which elements are worthy of retention – the good and the not-so-great – the aspects that will comfort, delight and nurture us and those that may always move us to tears. These I suppose are the traditions of the heart, the way we pass on the concept of family. It is part of our legacy, so I would suggest that we choose well. It becomes our imprimatur, our tacit approval for what will become critical elements of our family tradition. May it always begin and end with love.