Memorial Day Reflections

Flag of the United States at the memorial to P...

Flag of the United States at the memorial to President Kennedy in Hyannis, Massachusetts. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last weekend my son played in a memorial tennis tournament. It was held in the honor of a promising high school tennis player whose life was cut short last summer. The story I read about him was very moving and I am not surprised that my son immediately wanted to sign up to commemorate this young man. The police report indicated that the boy was just a passenger, on his way to tennis camp, and had the ill-fated luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Memorial Day is when we honor all the men and women who bravely serve in the military, protecting this country’s freedom and principles. Parents who send their children off to fight in wars have much trepidation and anxiety. They know that the odds are high that their son or daughter will come back wounded or worse. Parents who send their teens off to summer camp never anticipate such a horrible thing happening.

It makes me think about the adventures of my own children. They are both going to spend time at separate camps this summer. These should be exciting adventures for them and expand their worlds beyond our suburban town. Meeting new people and learning new things are the best part of camp. Should I reconsider letting them go? Absolutely not! In fact, they probably face worse possibilities at home.

For all the attention that airplane crashes seem to get, it is actually far more risky to be in a car. Everyday there are stories about fatal crashes, many not the fault of the driver. This summer my daughter will be getting her driver’s permit. Like myself as a teen, she has been counting the years, months and now weeks until she turns 16. I will be spending time on the road with her and doing my best to teach her defensive driving skills. She is a very cautious person and will be a safe driver; but it is all the other crazy ones who worry me.

I learned to drive on Long Island- on one of the busiest highways outside of NYC. My family had temporarily relocated there and my parents obtained special permission for me to enroll in driver’s ed. On Long Island one had to be 17, but they must have convinced the official in charge that they would supervise any time I was driving. When I return to the area these days and realize how much traffic there is and the speed at which these drivers race and swerve, I wonder why my parents went out of their way to get me in the class. If I was living there today, I would not be in such a rush to get my daughter behind the wheel. It’s funny how I thought it was fantastic at the time, but when I look back on it I can only imagine how nervous they must have been. I am sure the reason they agreed to it, was because they knew how important driving was to my sense of independence.

My son rides out on the roads, too. He and his friends have been expanding their bike rides to a couple of miles down to the ice cream stand. The last time he and a friend went off, I had to stop them and remind them to wear their helmets. I’m not sure how much protection they would actually provide if either of them crashed, but at least it makes me feel like I am doing something to take care of them. Hopefully they did not ditch the helmets as soon as they rode out of sight. I think I have made it clear how important I think their safety is to me.

My family also does alot of carpooling to practices, the mall, movies and amusment parks. So far all the driving has been done by adults- other parents whom I feel I can trust as safe drivers. That will start to change soon as our children reach the point where they have a junior license and can take passengers. Even with the best laid rules and plans, things can go wrong.

I still feel strongly about the right to independence, though. Our job as parents is to give our kids these experiences, whether they learn how to take care of themselves at summer camp or how to navigate around town on a bike or behind the wheel. We don’t want them to reach the age of adulthood and suddenly find themselves off at college with no idea of how to manage.

The other day, my son called me outside to the spot where a baby robin was splayed on the ground. I am sure it was one of the fledglings from the nest on our front porch. One who had flown away only a few days earlier, prodded by its parents to fly and see the world. I still see its siblings flitting about in the trees and hear them calling to each other. It is sad to see that one of them did not make it beyond his first day of freedom.

Obviously, there is no comparison between that baby bird and the boy who died last summer. His loss will leave a permanent hole in the hearts of his family and friends. This Memorial Day tennis tournament is a way of helping to heal that wound, but it will never go away. Likewise, when we watch the parades we remember all the soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice that can not be repaid in medals of honor or ceremonial flags.

Most of us view Memorial Day weekend as an opportunity to take a much needed break from work or school, throw a party, or take a mini vacation. While I am happy to have the extra day off, I am glad I was able to find at least a few moments to reflect on the real intention behind the holiday. My thoughts, prayers and appreciation go out to all the families who have lost members who fought to protect the freedom of the American people and their allies.

An Aptitude for Gratitude

Pile of gorgeous gifts

Image via Wikipedia

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”

~Cicero (106 BC- 43 BC)
Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, political theorist, and Roman constitutionalist.

The new year is here, the holidays have passed, the gifts have been received and, for all we know, the world may be coming to an end. I guess this is as good a time as any to talk about gratitude. According to Cicero, gratitude is the root of all other human values. Why, then, does it come more naturally to some than to others? We teach young children to say “please” and “thank you”; but is that really enough to impress upon them the real meaning of appreciation? From the piles of presents mine opened during Christmas, you would have thought there would be nothing but smiles. As adults, we all know to express appreciation whether we love the gift or not; but children haven’t mastered the difference between a white lie and a bad lie so their disappointment is not easily masked, creating an impression of selfishness.

What is required to learn gratitude? Do we point out the gross differences between how we live compared to those below the poverty line? Do we force them to donate unwanted gifts to a local charity? Do we put them on an austerity plan, taking away privileges and slowly earn those back as they gain more appreciation? I think unless you have been exposed to something less than what you are used to, it is very hard to grasp the concept.

What about putting them in the giver’s shoes? Would they like to know whether the person they had bought a present for liked it or not? What if they never heard anything about it at all, even though they had put time and effort into the gift? At the risk of nagging, I did try this strategy to help my kids empathize with their relatives who had sent gifts. Unfortunately, this is where I got stuck in the middle. Trying to bridge the gap between generations- one who finds gratitude to be a natural and expected trait and the other, who insists noone does this anymore. It is like trying to put the square peg in the round hole. Eventually my kids did recognize why writing a thank-you note was the right thing to do, yet is expressing gratitude a dying trait? In the age of technology, where exchanges can be shortened to a few syllables does THX really convey appreciation?    Thank You Notes :  wedding etiquette new york thank you Z924437 z924437 <>

I suppose the best thing to do is teach by example and remember to express thanks often, even if it is for help with a chore. Maybe the cumulative effect will eventually kick in and by the time they are grown up, they will be more apt to show gratitude without prompting.  In the meantime, I will appreciate every sunny day, every day of good health, every good meal and every moment of laughter. None of those should ever be taken for granted.

Balancing Traditions in an Interfaith Family

Last night was the first night of Hanukkah. It was a busy day, so we didn’t have time for a full-blown celebration; but we did gather in the kitchen to light the first candles of the 8 night holiday tradition. The kids laughed at the hand-painted menorah one of them had made at a very young age and were happy to sing while we lit the lights.

Ever since they were little, my husband and I have tried to find the right balance between his Jewish rituals and my Christian traditions. We bought a combination of holiday story books,  including Twas the Night Before Christmas and The Magic Dreidels. We even had one that was about an interfaith family celebration, Light the Lights.  I found an unbreakable Nativity set which the kids could play with alongside the toy dreidels.

I took them to a paint your own pottery studio so they could each paint a personal menorah. The year my son painted his, my daughter made a Santa candy dish.  We also have a special Christmas tree ritual  (described in an earlier post The Perfect Christmas Tree) I described our Christmas ritual.

Our first ornaments as a couple trying to balance traditions

We often light our menorah in the same room as our tree, so we have all kinds of holiday lights burning. We hang our stockings by the fireplace and decorate our table with a menorah as well as a wreath.

All of these rituals seem to stand on their own without diminishing the importance of any other. The one major difference though, is the lack of Hanukkah music. Singing Christmas carols was (and still is) my favorite part of the holiday. I know I complained about hearing Christmas music after Halloween, but lately I have been listening to it regularly, even singing along when the kids aren’t in earshot. There are so many great Christmas songs and I wanted to balance them with some comparable Hanukkah music. I did find a few cds, but there were only a few catchy songs that you could sing along with.

How can you compare kids songs to Handel's masterpiece?

The rest were either in Hebrew or were spoofs of Christmas songs. You could tell the songs were created just to appease Jewish parents; so I don’t even try matching them anymore. We just commit ourselves to Christmas carols.

The biggest challenge to finding balance, though has been gift-giving. At first, we tried to follow the childhood traditions of each of us. My husband had gotten one present a night, with one of them being a major gift; neither he nor his brothers received their big gift on the same night, so it was always a surprise.  I, of course, had gotten all my presents at once on Christmas morning, still in my pajamas while my parents sipped coffee to wake up at that hour. By the time we went through this painstaking routine twice , we realized that this was overkill and we had to change things.

Unless you are Jewish, you probably don’t realize that Hanukkah is not a very important holiday and that it has only gained recognition because it falls at the same time of year as Christmas. Gifts were really only added to make Hanukkah more child-friendly; it is actually a celebration of a Jewish victory in a war against the Greeks and a reconsecration of a holy temple with a miraculous supply of oil. Taking this historical information into account led us to drop the gift giving, except for some little tokens- candy, an iTunes card, dreidels. While the kids still receive Hanukkah gifts from their grandparents and aunt, we focus on lighting the menorah, playing a rousing dreidel competition and enjoying the traditional meal of latkes (more on this tomorrow).

Tonight we will have a big meal while we light our menorah and in a few days we will head to my sister’s house for our Christmas celebration. It is all a matter of balance, complex but meaningful; loaded with traditions that have been pared down to the most meaningful ones. The good news is that even though the kids really look forward to the Christmas gifts, they seem to appreciate the significance of all the rituals we have chosen to follow. I guess that means we have found a good mix. 

The Perfect Christmas Tree

Saturday was the perfect day to go Christmas Tree cutting. A crisp 35 afternoon with mostly sunny skies called us on our search. The kids grumbled at first, but the possibility of being left behind and not having a say in the choice of our tree overcame their lethargy. We headed out to our local tree farm, which we have visited for the last 4 years having discovered they have the most beautiful firs in the area. Of course, I had anticipated that we would need gloves and handed them out upon arrival. The kids gave me sheepish grins, but were happy to not have to keep their hands in their pockets. 

There was a light snow covering on the ground, which made our quest much more pleasing than walking through the mud of past years. We started walking toward the outer edge of the field, away from the other families also searching for the perfect tree. Fortunately there were so many to choose from, that there was no reason for competition. In fact, the only contest there was, was which kid could find the better tree.

It took less than 10 minutes to find one that we could all agree upon. Thankfully, they do recognize when it is not worth taking a stand, just for the sake of winning. The cold air probably helped. A nearby family had just claimed their tree and offered us a hand saw so we didn’t have to wait for the tractor to come around. My husband got down on the ground  while the kids supported the tree. I, of course, had the important job of capturing photos.      

They gave it a good try, but admitted defeat when the tractor came by.              The owners started up their chain saw       and the tree was toppled in seconds.      

They loaded it onto the tractor and then onto our car.           On the drive home, we chattered excitedly about how we would decorate it this year. The kids speculated on what their special ornament might be.

Special ornaments have been a family tradition since I was a baby. I have a collection of over 20 ornaments, ranging from souvenirs of places I visited, to symbolic ornaments for accomplishments of the year. Once I had my own children, the tradition began again. They have ornaments commemorating their favorite sports (soccer or gymnastics), teams (Red Sox), or trips we have taken.    This year, they each received a wooden donkey which we had purchased in Santorini after they rode the donkeys down from the top.

We started by stringing the lights, trying to create a uniform pattern and then added chains of glittery beads which gave a traditional look to the tree.    The old family ornaments were carefully placed and then the child or dog-proof plastic ones were hung near the bottom- a good thing since Cooper quickly batted a silver snowman to the ground. Then the kids claimed an area of the floor or couch to spread out their special collection. It was wonderful to see how they took the time to reflect on each one and remember why it had been given. My daughter even had hers lined up by year so she knew how old she was at each season.

The last decoration to adorn the tree was the hand crafted angel for the top, lovingly sewn by my aunt and given to me long ago she sits on the highest point and smiles at us during the Christmas holidays.         Is it the most beautiful tree? Would it pass the criticism of people with an eye for design? No and no; but my daughter did not make any negative remarks, probably because she knew they wouldn’t change the outcome but also because she gets how special our tree is and how many family treasures and priceless memories it holds. Now that is a wonderful tradition to uphold.

A New Thanksgiving

When I looked at my calendar this morning, I realized that Thanksgiving is a mere 10 days away. For most of us, that is a reason to celebrate, especially if you are a kid who gets the holiday off from school. I am not going to get into the political correctness of the holiday, because we all know the conflicting historical views. I am only looking at Thanksgiving as a family gathering, a time to be together and celebrate life. And in my family, that is what is most important.

Ever since my wedding, I have spent Thanksgiving with my husband’s family. That adds up to 18 years over which we get together and share traditions (not to mention all the celebrations they had before I joined). My mother-in-law has prepared essentially the same meal every year, roast turkey, stuffing, twice baked potatoes, gravy, marinated brocolli, white onions and sweet potatoes. The appetizers and desserts change from year to year, put there always has to be a pumpkin pie. Not only is the food part of the tradition, but there is often a chess match and a long walk while we digest. My children started our most fun tradition, though, the annual art show. Between appetizers and dinner, every family member presents a piece of art and gives a presentation. It started out very simply, but it’ s been recurring for almost 10 years and has become quite sophisticated. (I may have to write a whole post on this sometime)

Anyway, back to this year’s celebration…

Over the last two years, we have lost two family members and the only ones who have not relocated are my own family. My mother-in-law now lives in a lovely apartment in Boston, which is the perfect size for her but not for a lot of people staying over. With all of the changes she has been through, I think she finally felt ready to hand over the reigns of hosting Thanksgiving to me. I am happy to have this honor, but at the same time I know it is a big responsibility.

The biggest challenge will be planning a new menu. Of course we will have turkey and stuffing with gravy. My husband has already said he will take care of that. My daughter wants to make the twice baked potatoes. So now I am in charge of some different side dishes and desserts. I have already ordered oysters and am incorporating a cheese fondue into the appetizers. It is fun to try new things and I think everyone will be up for it, as long as I don’t get too carried away.

We’ll still be able to talk a nice walk, play a game of chess and hold our art show. Some traditions just don’t change.

My Grandmother’s China

With the holidays now approaching, I have been turning my attention to preparing for some cheerful gatherings. That means it is time to clean and press my table cloths, polish my furniture and dust off my china cabinet.

Inside my china cabinet I hold a treasure of family history, my Grandmother’s gold-plated Superior china set. It has 12 six-piece settings. plus another half dozen serving dishes in a delicate yellow floral pattern.  This was my grandmother’s wedding china, given to her by the family for whom she had been a nanny when she first immigrated from Germany. She had cared for their children for several years until she got married. This beautiful china set was an expression of how fond they were of her and their encouragement for her to start her own family.


Over the years, Grandma displayed her china set proudly. Even though its gold rims required special care, she was happy to use the dishes when company came over. By the time I was born, they had already seen over 30 years of use. As a young girl, I noticed how much the china set meant to her; how she instructed me to hold the plates carefully with two hands when setting the table, or how to wash the food remnants off gently with a dish cloth. When she told me how she acquired the set, I was fascinated. Here was a young woman who had come over on a ship alone with only what she could carry, and yet she had the great fortune to have, what seemed to me, the most beautiful and plentiful china set I could imagine. And the fact that the family who had given it to her was Jewish, made the historic connection that she was German and had come here before WWII, almost a twist of fate.

The significance of her china set was never lost on me and she knew how much I enjoyed it. Many years passed, as did my grandfather. While I was assisting my parents packing up my grandmother’s belongings to move upstate with her children, we pondered what to do with the china. My grandmother would not need to use it again. I was still in college and did not foresee needing it for years, but I knew that when I was ready I would like to have that set. My parents graciously stored it for me until I got married, over a decade later.

When my fiance and I registered for wedding gifts, even though there were gorgeous new patterns of china to choose from in more interesting color schemes, I was not tempted. I knew in my heart what my wedding china would be. I cautioned my partner-to-be that he would be hand-washing dishes whenever we used them. Of course, he was terrified that he would be the first to break a dish in its long history.  But he knew the significance the set held for me and has never once complained about the extra care required when we use them.

Almost twenty years have passed since then. My children have both heard the family story about the china set, but between a son who is not impressed with dishes and a daughter who has a high sense of design and color, I know neither one of them would want it. That is fortunate for me, because I am not ready to give it up any time soon. Recently, my mother-in-law downsized her living quarters and knew it was time to turn over her Limoges china to the next generation. My teenage daughter felt honored to be entrusted with such a beautiful set and memorized the whole story behind it. We carefully boxed it up and stored it in our basement until she is ready to use it.

I think these things need to skip a generation to fully appreciate their significance. No girl would want her mother’s china set, and no mother would be ready to give up her own. It takes time for a meaningful story to pan out and a different bond between grandmother and granddaughter to form. I don’t know if I will ever have a granddaughter to pass my dishes on to, but in the meantime I plan to keep using them in the memory of my own grandmother and the wonderful bond I had with her. As I set the table for a holiday meal, I lovingly place the pieces of her wedding china and know how fortunate I am to have a priceless piece of family history.