Within the multitude of busy moments we live through in a year, it is easy for us to wrongly believe that our efforts to celebrate life, to serve our children, to love and forgive them one more time can be pouring our lives into an empty hole. Yet, now that my children are grown, I am amazed how much they communicate over and over again how much our family traditions meant to them. I think it planted very deep roots intertwined around their hearts that tie us all together to the same faith, the same moral values, the same purposes that we share as we live life from day to day.
Often, women have asked me how my children truly became my best friends. Many moms have asked me over the years, "What did you do to cultivate your children into best friends? How did you help them learn to enjoy each other?" I think one way is that I purposed time that we would all spend together, routinely, every week, every season, all the time--even as they got older. There were some non-negotiable times when everyone had to be home--sometimes it was a Saturday night pizza movie, most times we were always home on Sunday afternoon tea times, or Sunday morning feasts. Of course when they were little all time was family time and that is when you are really securing tight relationships.
Every time spring rolls around, I find myself wondering how we started so many birthday traditions that the expectations of each birthday child is so high! (Four out of five have a birthday in one month!) I find myself a little worn out, and my mind ponders, "Now, why am I doing this, again? Does it really make a difference?" As I have pondered this the past few weeks, having had everyone home for 5 weeks, I have realized again that traditions force us to take time to celebrate life and this has built our family culture and close relationships more than I ever could have known.
Pausing, as a family, in the midst of the busyness of life, communicates that we are more important to each other as a family than all the activities that are swirling around in our lives that separate us from each other.
In our case, when Joy was in her mid teens, she didn't often have the full attention of her siblings, who are quite a bit older than her. They were always running here and there to a job, to classes or to meet friends. Yet, on birthdays, everyone takes a break from their other commitments---even Clay stays home the mornings of birthday breakfasts--and says to the birthday child, "You are beloved in this family and we are here to celebrate your life!"
I remember clearly the day Joy turned 12. That day was especially bittersweet, as I imagined that by the next year's birthday, probably only Clay, Joy, and I would be home to celebrate her birthday as a family! I thought we would have to import new friends as family. Yet, the reality was, our home had a revolving door. All of her siblings managed to come home often, move home for a period and always we have never had less than 4 living at home at a time.
Each birthday morning, the person we are celebrating, had to wait expectantly in their bedroom. They were allowed something to sip--hot chocolate or tea---and then had to wait patiently for the other siblings to come to deliver them to our breakfast table. Usually, I made my whole-wheat cinnamon rolls--the expected favorites--and I make my own special scrambled eggs---with cheese, sour cream, ham or bacon bits. Strong Austrian coffee dripped through the filter, while one child set the table with the ceramic tea set used for all birthdays. (The set was bought over several years at a second's shop in Austria. By now, several of the dishes are chipped or cracked, but, as we cannot buy anymore here in the States, we are happy that the dishes aren't broken.)
We were always all a part of a team seeking to throw things together as quickly as possible, since often, presents were wrapped and cards written at the last minute. One child would throw the gifts into very familiar bags--many of which we have kept for years. As a matter of fact, the kids all discussed which bags were their favorites and warned me never to give them away to anyone else with a present in it, because it is family tradition! (Winnie the Pooh and a pre-Raphealite bag tied for the favorites!)
We put every gift, however small, in its own bag. Even if something was purchased for a song at GoodWill or at the dollar store, it gets fully wrapped. Consequently, each year, it looks as though the birthday child is getting a zillion presents, even though the ultimate value may not be much at all--it is all part of the sparkle and fun of the morning. (Once, a child received a package of ball point pens--each in its own bag!) Life is a flurry as one sets the table, one lights the candle and puts coffee cream out, another is wrapping and putting on music to set the mood and Clay is always looking for the camera and batteries since he is the official photographer.
Finally, at least a couple of kids would go to the birthday child's room to blind-fold their eyes, so that they have to stumble into the room with no peeking. What a funny sight that year, as 6'5" Joel and 6'3" Nathan still willingly participated in leading Joy down the steps for her surprise day.
Seems the conversation never varies from year to year---I think your cinnamon rolls are the best, Mom. Yeah, we have never tasted any that even compared. (Of course this is so I will keep making them from year to year and yes, it does encourage me to keep up the work---even with five birthdays that month!)
After breakfast was appropriately enjoyed, the birthday child began opening gifts one at a time--to be marveled at, commented on, and appreciated. Then come the cards---each child and parent usually creates a card and message for the birthday child to read and save in a special box.
Humor always adorns every meal we share, whether it was our somewhat silly golden retriever who almost knocked down the table to get to the leftover eggs, or some extravagant comment. This particular day did not disappoint us; I was reading a Jane Austen quote out loud from a card Joy received: "It is much easier to kill realities than phantoms!" At that exact moment, the front door mysteriously blew open--and we all looked for the phantoms who must have entered precisely on time for a great effect! (Maybe you had to be here--but the timing was perfect and made us all giggle!)
Finally, the pinnacle of the morning was when all of us at the table shared with the birthday child what they have meant to us, how we appreciate them, and how they have grown over the past year. I am still astounded that even now, when we are together, my adult children take this ritual so seriously. When they were young, I expected they would surely giggle and make sarcastic comments and find it difficult to finish the time. Yet, I am truly amazed that they have invested lots of love and thoughtfulness into these times and I can truly observe the heart of the birthday child being watered and refreshed enough to last for months.
I see before me, these children who have learned to love each other in spite of the personality differences, the various immature and hormonal and argumentative stages of life. I am amazed and grateful. How did this happen---these children who threatened to undo me from time to time with their whining, silly fusses, immaturity and friction. Yet, here they are in their right minds, enjoying each other, laughing at each other's jokes, discussing issues loudly, and participating in family bonding--willingly, generously.
What a gift to me, Lord, to see this picture, watching Joy's heart fill with emotional health, before her brothers and sister venture to the far winds.
When everyone goes their way, I see that there will be hundreds of memories shared, love communicated, and prayers offered at our table over the years of celebrations--because we took time to invest in tying our heartstring to each other. These foundations of emotional, mental, and spiritual health will serve to stabilize and give hope to each of us long after we are separated by miles.
Now I see, all the effort and cooking and washing of dishes and wrapping of presents did matter, because they provided the frame around which a life of love was painted on the souls of each of my precious children.
READ MORE STORIES IN THE LIFEGIVING TABLE.