As I headed out for groceries the other day, I stopped to ask if anyone needed me to add anything to the list.
“Get stuff for our traditional family dessert,” the 9-year-old shouted back.
We’re not much for deserts in this house, much less a family that has a traditional homemade one. But the kid’s usually pretty sensible and he hadn’t bonked his head or anything recently, so I stopped to find out what he was thinking.
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Turns out he’d enjoyed the cheese, crackers and sliced pear I’d set out after dinner a couple nights earlier on a whim. It was the first time I’d made that particular arrangement, but once was enough for him to declare it a tradition.
I like his thinking.
Traditions are great for compressing deep memory, huge family bonds and comfort into small events. They can hold worlds, but that’s no reason to hold off declaring a new tradition after just one good memory, like a bite of soft cheese and crunchy pear with family you love.
Jumping the gun like that just means there’s more space in the tradition to add new memories down the road.
The kid might be more sensitive to the tingling of potential tradition when there’s good food in front of him because food’s the center of so many of the best traditions in our house.
There’s the traditional cocoa infused with family memories on cold evenings. We chop it from a rock-hard disc of cinnamon-flavored chocolate and froth it with a molinillo — a wooden Mexican contraption that looks more like an elaborate baby rattle than the whisk it is.
As I roll the molinillo with my palms, I remember the cups of cocoa that my Grandma Maria and my mom gave me when I was a boy, and wonder who my boys will froth cocoa for when they’re on their own.
When my wife and I are too tired to cook, we lean on the traditional family picnic. It’s just the usual sliced meat, cheese, olives and fruit, but laid out on a blanket it’s different enough to feel special.
Even our traditional family hike centers around food, despite the fact that we rarely bring any along.
We like to take the same path through woods a short drive from our house, one that takes us either in the shadow or over along the edge of a bluff overlooking a creek, depending on which trail we choose from a fork.
Either way, once the bluff comes into view one of the boys usually mentions the times we scrambled halfway up and leaned against the rock face to pull bread and cheese from a rucksack at lunchtime. Now, with or without a stop for lunch, it’s a place where someone spontaneously sparks a conversation about past family outings.
But it’s easy to overthink a tradition and completely drive it off the rails.
There was the traditional Super Bowl party my brother used to organize for our cousins, uncles and the oldest family friends. You’d show up on Friday with cash for the party fund, and leave on Sunday with hazy memories of catered food, endless drinks and a weekend with the best guys we know.
After a few years, someone thought turning the party into an annual Las Vegas meet-up could only make it better. The whole tradition finally fell apart the year one of the family friends managed to party himself into a serious conversation with cops and a lifetime ban from most of the casinos on the strip.
It would be quite a trick to drive the cheese and pear plate to the same fate, but it doesn’t hurt to remember that traditions can be delicate things. Sure, go ahead and create them from scratch after one good dessert, but then enjoy them for the routine they become. If you have to spice them up, stop a notch or two before someone calls police.
Richard Espinoza is a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.