Unnoticed Traditions


9:30 on a Saturday night.

I am pulling damp dresses out of the washer and folding them the way my grandmother taught my mom: I shake and spread the wet clothes out flat, pulling the edges taut so no wrinkles remain, and carry the whole stack to the bedroom to hang each one up to dry. In the morning, I’ll have a fresh closetful of little girls’ clothes that don’t need to be ironed.

I remember hearing my mother marvel at this piece of washing wisdom, and I wasn’t aware I had tucked it away for future reference. I’m glad I did.

Growing up, I never thought we were a family that had traditions.

We have no generations-old house where everyone gathers for holidays, no favorite pastime that the grandparents did with each of their grandchildren, no vacation spot where we meet friends and childhood memories each summer.

The war in Korea had much to do with that, and if not for a history class assignment in 10th grade, my mother and I would never have heard many of Grandma’s stories from those bleak years. Heirlooms have become lost as they’ve changed owners, but we have our family genealogy record, and we have stories… even if we haven’t always had the gathering times and special objects with which to pass them on.

Perhaps because they’ve been scarce in our line, I’ve always been attracted to traditions.

Two Christmases ago, we had the chance to ask my dad what the holiday was like on the tiny fishing island where he grew up. As he started to describe the footpaths and shores of his boyhood, we pulled up a satellite image on Google Earth. He had never searched for it himself. His whole face lit up as he pointed to the roads and where certain buildings used to be, telling us how the carolers from the Catholic church would go out and collect candy from village houses to hand out to all the children on Christmas Day. I loved hearing every word of his stories. Where we squinted at fuzzy details on the photograph, he saw the indelible fingerprints of a lifetime.

That island is now part of the maritime demarcation between North and South Korea. In the years since his family moved to a coastal city, Dad has been the only one of his siblings to go to college, live abroad, and raise children in a different culture and language.

One generation later, our little house is pioneer country in its own way, as Y and I try to bring up our girls in a faith we ourselves didn’t have in our childhood homes. Few things make me happier than hearing others’ stories of how their parents helped them nurture a love of God, or what they did with their families that they remember with affection, so if you have a story like that — please do share.

We’ve implemented some of our favorite ideas through the years: Advent calendars, clay caves “sealed” with backyard stones awaiting Resurrection Sunday, a one-weekend hunt every Autumn for blazing leaf colors for Mama’s sake. On her fourth birthday, I let Lucy try on my wedding dress, and she was so awed and felt so special that I think I’ll repeat it at the same age for Little Jo. Small treasures embedded in the cycle of our lives.

But as we do these, more wisps from the past come back, and I realize that we did have traditions in our house when I was growing up: small things that made our family distinctly us. We always had dinner together, whether it was spaghetti or a full Korean spread. “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy” came on at 7 o’clock, and we’d shout early answers or laugh over each other’s ridiculous guesses. We had our family talks at the table, often over tea, often in the late hours of the evening — this we still do, even when there’s only two of us gathered.

We walked trails for exercise in summer; nothing tastes better than a couple of PB&Js with raw carrot sticks eaten by a river in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Try it. Some time in high school, I noticed that my father is forty quick strides ahead of everyone if we’re in a group, but he always matches my mother’s pace if it’s just the two of them.

And if you like the taste of something at my mother’s table, be measured in your praise, or else she will buy the ingredients in bulk and make it for you every single day. It’s not just a quirk; it’s her way, and the heart of it is now inextricably woven into our family. We love with quiet provision, and many times, with food.

They have no magic in themselves, these traditions, but they carry with them our small histories, the markers of our relationships, and the stories that matter to us.

In the traditions we mindfully preserve, we learn the different dialects of love, and they carry us through separations and silences and losses — not as a substitute for the missing, but as proof of life lived. As remembrance, like the bread we break and the wine we swallow every first Sunday of the month at our church.

As if to say, in each reprise: here was love — and here love marked us.