Holiday Tradition – With a Twist

From the St. Paul Pioneer Press Opinion page, Dec. 8, 2019.

It feels like a mad dash from Thanksgiving to Christmas and a new year. Like everyone else, I’m juggling lists and plans as we race to the finish line of 2019.

My mind feels like a mosquito that darts from target to target on a summer’s night. On top of that, it is host to a creative narrative that can surface at rather strange times.

Earlier this week, I woke up with the lyrics from the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” coursing through my mind. It’s been decades since I nestled with my siblings on our orange shag carpet to watch Fiddler. And yet, there it was, with a timely message.

In the prologue to “Fiddler,” Tevye, the Jewish patriarch, explains that everything and everyone in the community is based on tradition. And it is longstanding tradition for just about everything – how to eat, dress, sleep – that help residents of his tiny Russian community maintain their balance.

But, most importantly, Tevye sings, “Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do…. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as …as a fiddler on the roof.”

Regardless of faith, culture, or ethnicity, traditions connect us, make us feel part of something bigger than ourselves. In a time when people feel isolated, disconnected, or awash, it’s the predictable things that keep us grounded.

Divorce, death and distance have made connection and consistency, the underpinnings of traditions, a challenge for my immediate and extended family. That they have been so elusive is likely part of my yearning for traditions.

My husband, Chris, comes from the nuclear family I longed to have – parents who stayed together for a lifetime; siblings who live close enough to share birthdays and holidays and date nights; kids whose cousins, aunts, and uncles are part of each other’s lives.

Holiday traditions are part of his family fabric. And, as we mark time together, they are becoming part of my own.

And yet, I find myself striving for balance. For, while traditions provide a foundation, it is our ability to change when necessary that allows us to carry on.

Times – and family systems — have changed since “Fiddler on the Roof” first hit the stage in 1964. Many of today’s families are evolving – contracting, expanding, reconfiguring.

Consequently, flexibility and creativity are part of the recipe for establishing traditions that are congruent with who we become.

Because we are old but our marriage is young, Chris and I have relatively few shared experiences and no traditions of our own.

We’re coming to understand that our best life together will come from balancing favorite old traditions with new ones that reflect our values.

It’s becoming clear that our traditions will have more to do with time than things.

We’ve both downsized from the homes in which we raised our families. We want for little.

Except for more time.

I often feel like we are trying to outpace an invisible clock. We still have a lot of living to do. All we need is time.

We need time to fill the cooler with beer and take our crew on boat rides in July.

We need time to take the grandkids to breakfast with Santa in December.

We need time to try a new driver on a faraway golf course; time to see a distant part of the world from the bow of a boat; and time to play cribbage with friends.

As much as we want to live well, we also want to leave well.

To that end, this year we have a gift for our family that will not be wrapped in shiny paper under the tree.

It’s the gift of our end-of-life planning.

It’s the gift of peace of mind.

We’ve had the hard conversations.

We’ve signed the health-care directives and asked loved ones to assume powers one would prefer not to exercise.

We’ve taken steps to ensure the passwords and paperwork are in one place, so no one has to go on a scavenger hunt to locate them when we are gone.

It’s a labor of love, not easily achieved.

We’ve wished for a crystal ball as we’ve grappled with the unknown – how long we will live, how much money we need to live our dream life, and how much money my son with special needs will require to be secure.

With all the uncertainties that are part of our existence, we’ve done the best we can. It’s a work in progress, one we’ll revisit periodically.

We’ve made planning a priority because we know that families with deep ties and a long history can become embattled when there is no estate or end-of-life plan in place.

A family like ours, brought together later in life with less time to establish trust and affection, would be more susceptible to rancor if we failed to plan.

And so, one of our traditions now is to plan. We cannot foresee every contingency. But we can tweak and adapt as necessary.

How and when our lives will end is one of the universe’s great mysteries. Yet, we can take steps to ensure those we leave behind will be on a solid foundation. We can take steps to ensure our end of life will not be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof. That’s a tradition to live by.


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