Traditions and families go together like…two things that go together really well. The family I grew up in had several traditions, Like my dad’s Pancake Sundays and our New Year’s Day brunch. Another was our annual Connecticut River Fall Foliage Tour onboard our sailboat.
A lot of years this was a joke: The weather was so horrible we never left the dock unless it was to go to get galvanized pails of steamed clams with butter and broth for dunking. But the tour was more: It was an annual appreciation and acknowledgment of our fortunes. We had a live-aboard-size boat, a close family, and resided in the perfect area for autumnal leaf peeping.
It was also our traditional last water trip of the year. Shortly afterward the boat would be hauled and spend the winter months settled upon a wooden cradle that kept it upright on dry land.
The boaty tradition next on our calendars? My dad called it our “Shakedown Cruise.”
Come spring, Dad would haul the whole family to the boat on the weekends. We would scrub and paint the bottom, clean every inch of its interior, hull and decks. (And I would accidentally step on a nail in the boatyard because taking a break to go to the ER was my special contribution.)
Next, after a travelift would scoop the boat up in two thick, strong fabric bands to settle her into the water, Dad fired up the engine and we puttered out of the harbor to begin the Shakedown Cruise. Every year.
It had been months, nearly a whole school year, since we had been boat crew and we lost a lot of our skills. We were awkward to raise sails, slow to come about and — whoa. Nelly — our docking procedures were clumsy.
But the point of the shakedown cruise was to remind us of nautical rules, to refresh our deck-choreography and to give us all, Dad included, a safe and forgiving place to mess-up while we re-learned the skills lost over winter.
My brother is laughing right now. This version sounds like a very pleasant, annual family tradition. But the reality? None of us enjoyed the shakedown cruise but reestablishing the behavior and skills lost over time was a necessity.
I do a shakedown cruise every summer without a boat. Each year as the weather warms up, the kids and I provide ourselves a safe space to relearn skills and behaviors lost over the winter.
Our shakedown cruise begins the day after the final bell of the school year rings.
Every year that first week is a time to adjust our schedules, routines and activities from those of the school year to those of summer break, but this year was different. This year’s Shakedown Cruise went in three stages: first, college-age daughter finished her classes, next teenage son became college-age son when he graduated a week later, and a week after that the little guy finished sixth grade.
No one week and done: I had three separate shakedown cruises that, together, took a full month.
They were harder than in years past — it took me until the middle of week two to remember that I had helpers for cleaning and extra house-projects. The volume level went up each week and the number of other people’s kids at my door tripled. We all had to learn to be respectful of each other all day long and the kids had to stop forgetting their house keys: Their mom isn’t a doormom.
Finally we’re finished with Shakedown Cruise: 2017 and I’ve realized that the lessons of my long-completed childhood boat traditions have resurfaced in our landlocked state. This past month has been awkward and frustrating, but it’s also a seasonal acknowledgment of our fortunes: three kids, a home and a close family.
And the bittersweet realization that, like the traditions of my youth, the traditions my kids experience will end and morph into cherished memories.