We All Need Traditions
Children of the revolutions, we make them out of bits and pieces
After the war was over, the Founding Fathers must have been at loose ends.
Winning your independence from the past is one thing. Creating a future from scratch is entirely another. Like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution’s laid out a map of lofty principles. But if every step of daily life had to be invented anew to conform to those principles, revolutionary life would have been very existential.
It’s easier to change our belief systems than our habits. Revolutions come and eventually are over, while habits are, well, habitual. No doubt our founding fathers and mothers fell back on the manners and mores they’d ditched.
So if you visit William Paca House over the holidays — for Colonial Revival wreath design last Friday or Historic Annapolis Holiday Open House December 7, for example — you’re likely to find a British flavor in its traditions.
In our times, revolutions are a lot quicker. Every generation cycles through its own — and maybe more than one.
Big external forces — constricting lineages, uprooted families and easy mobility — rob us of our traditions. So does growing up, as our own choices divide us from our upbringing.
I was drawn to the idea of traditions this week, when December calls traditions to the fore, because, like the kids of the big Revolution, I was a child of change.
My mother was born on January 1, 1921, to brand new immigrants from Italy. Strangers in a strange land, they had to build up their lives from scratch. Poverty, privation and hard work were main forces in my mother’s stories of growing up, and all I knew I knew from her. My grandparents died before I was born, and Mother gladly left her past behind with her own small emigration to the big city.
My Irish great-grandfather Martin was an immigrant too, if I can believe a 1920 Chicago census form in the hand of my grandfather Elmer Martin. That’s the only evidence I have to go on, for he, too, was dead before I arrived on the scene. The only Martin relation I ever met was my father.
My mother and father were only surviving children, and I was their only child. They were entrepreneurs, and they invented a new life for our little family.
Following their lead, I invented my own very different life as soon as I was old enough. It was just taking shape when the 1970s blew it all to pieces. Children of that revolution Defied Authority. Philosophically, we started from scratch, with trial and error our only guide.
It was all very existential, all this invention.
Like our founding fathers and mothers, I grew very grateful for old habits that had resisted change.
Many of my daily habits are inheritances from my mother, and probably through her from her mother. Others are proud holdovers of little routines I learned from my father’s mother. Florence Bunting Martin had suffered her own uprooting, but she knew where her roots were planted. She even had living cousins, and they were my closest relatives, those first cousins thrice removed.
Disparate as they were, both sides of my family bound kinship to food, or so my memories tell me. Did that buried root give rise to my father and mother’s enterprise, a restaurant? The root is still sprouting in the traditions I create — and the ones I join.
Thus Celeste and Pat Furey’s Southern Maryland ham stuffing party on the Saturday before Thanksgiving is a sharing for which I’m deeply glad. Like the Fairhaven Christmas tree, it radiates out from their home at Pin Oak Farm in St. Leonard to the homes, families and friends, children and grandchildren of all the stuffers. It becomes a legend and makes us a community.
Like Celeste, who continues a tradition of her husband’s family, we children of the revolution take traditions when and where we find them. Often we make them anew from bits and pieces picked up through lifetimes. Inherited or borrowed, we make our own to illuminate the future.
To learn to make your traditions, read this week’s feature: Build Your Own Traditions. Proofreader Martha Lee Benz called it a “Great story!” I hope you’ll find it worth your time.
Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; firstname.lastname@example.org