Wednesday, February 24, 2010

CELEBRATING TRADITIONS: Our Children's Birthright

Nephew Dan Helfenberger and grandson Jacob Black. Family campout at Bumping Lake Campground, WA

Even in our past-paced world, many families maintain close and loving relationships. Their members live near each other, respond when needed, and socialize together. Other families, due to a variety of reasons, cannot be so close, but still manage to share their lives whenever possible.

Family traditions--the yearly or regular celebration and sharing of personal events-- greatly nurture such closeness. Whether they involve holidays, reunions, or sports, these ritual gatherings not only strengthen families, but also provide life-long memories.

Our grown children now have children of their own. Among the joys of being a grandparent is watching our children pass along the "customs" they enjoyed as kids.
One favorite is sharing ghost stories which their father would tell during family campouts. Years later, our son recited the same eerie tales at a campout. As one of his stories unfolded to ghastly delight, I watched with enchantment as our little granddaughter inched closer to him. The grandchildren have outgrown ghost stories, but not the campouts–they’re still a yearly favorite.

Our campouts began many years ago, starting out with our children, then expanding as they married and had children of their own. Now we include extended relatives and even relatives-to-be. The campouts have traditions of their own–special nights around a crackling campfire, roasting marshmallows and making ‘smores.

Holidays provide a wealth of family traditions. Children love to take part in rituals that commemorate religious, seasonal, or historical occasions. By adhering to certain procedures prescribed for each, precious memories are woven into their sense of belonging.

When I was young, our Christmas stockings consisted of one sock from a new pair of knee-high stockings stuffed with nuts, candy, and small gifts. I continued this tradition with our children and now, our grandchildren. This year we stuffed 13 pairs of Christmas Stockings. Many family members have told us how special these “lumpy socks” are to them and how they look forward to this tradition.

Food is another important part of family celebrations. My daughters, and sometimes granddaughters, too, and I prepare for Christmas by gathering on a chosen day and baking dozens of cookies and other delights. We're always open to trying new recipes, but tradition mandates that old favorites appear on the cookie tray. Each of us prepares cookie trays to give as gifts. For years, in whatever neighborhood my husband and I have lived, we make our rounds to our neighbors, distributing colorful plates of Christmas cookies.

Remember, not every event has to be perfect. Let other people help and add their touch. Personal involvement helps solidify traditions. Failures and challenges are a way of life–it’s how we handle them that can become opportunities for growth. Try to keep a sense of humor and a positive attitude. Who knows, maybe a deviation from the norm will pave the way toward a new tradition.

You don’t have to have a holiday in order to form a tradition. Even the simple tradition of the family eating dinner together is important. Eating together wasn't even an issue when I was growing up--to do otherwise hadn't occurred to us. But in today's on-the-go world of two working parents and conflicting schedules, it's a practice that should be revived more than occasionally. Mealtime is a good time to make family connections.

Each summer, our grandchildren, one at a time, have spent a few days with us. The visit allows us to "catch up" with each grandchild and gives that child an opportunity to soak up lots of individual love and attention. Some of our grandchildren are now on their own and it is no longer possible to carry on the tradition, but the memories remain.

Many traditions, like respect for thrift, are passed down. My husband can fix almost anything, often using materials from other discards that he has carefully dismantled and stored, as his father did before him. Mending clothes, recycling articles among siblings--these and other traditions have proven valuable to our family over the years. These practices have often freed up funds that otherwise wouldn’t be available.

Adolescents sometimes scorn or avoid the family events they loved as little children. My advice: Be patient and allow them to actively make the choice whether to participate. This ambivalence may go on for years, but more often than not, they will return to tradition when they have families of their own.

It's fun hearing our children and grandchildren recall good times from their childhood. Now, when I watch these same traditions being recreated within their own families, it is particularly gratifying. Good times, family times, are important. The magic of tradition is that it not only makes for fun and family enrichment in the present, it also creates strong bonds for future generations.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Review: The Last Cowgirl by Jana Richman

Jana Richman’s The Last Cowgirl, chronicles the Sinfield family’s move from the Salt Lake City suburbs to a small, ill-equipped ranch near Clayton, Utah. The novel spans over a forty year period, toggling from Dickie Sinfield’s career as a successful journalist in Salt Lake City to flashbacks of her childhood. A family tragedy takes Dickie from her comfortable city life to visit the family ranch, and forces her to come to terms with her childhood.

The move from city to country satisfies her father’s cowboy fantasies. Dickie’s older brother thrives and happily sheds his city skin while her mother and older sister ignore the move and manage to carry on their lives as before. Seven years old at the time of the move, Dickie finds herself excluded from either extreme. Although there are good times with a neighboring boy, Stumpy, and a wise neighbor, Bev, Dickie, accident-prone and without a shred of self-confidence, spends much of her childhood in fear of her environment.

The novel is at times hilarious with the enactment of the cowboy lifestyle, at times sad with the struggle of being placed in an environment foreign to familiar comforts. The Last Cowgirl, however, is always entertaining with its strong characterization, vivid images of the countryside, and deep personal insights. Jana Richman’s honest approach to her characters make you feel like you’ve known them for years.

The Last Cowgirl (William Morrow/Harper Collins Publishers) won the 2009 WILLA Literary Award for Contemporary Fiction.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Do We Live on the Same Planet?

For most authors, finding a publisher is the point of writing a book. Sure, we find the actual writing the most pleasurable and satisfying part of our profession. But most of us anticipate the reward of seeing the book published, holding it in our own hands, seeing it in the hands of others, and, hopefully, having it sell.

Once I finished my latest novel, Tenderfoot, a romantic suspense with a sub-plot of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, I thought I’d try casting it in the daunting ocean of New York publishers. I didn’t go through an agent, thinking I’d just try it on my own.

To my surprise, I received a telephone call from a New York publisher. Oh, my! She felt the story was well written, but found it confusing. “If this mountain was going to erupt, why would anyone be on it?”

“But, it’s true, fifty-seven people lost their lives as the result of that eruption.”

“Why would anyone be on a mountain that’s going to explode?”

That’s a tough question to answer. Many of those who died were scientists, some were reporters, some loggers, people who had business on the mountain. But many more were people who just wanted to be where the action was, wanted to see for themselves what all the commotion was about, people who didn’t want to miss out.

“Well,” the New Yorker replied, “I don’t understand that mentality and I personally don’t think the story is believable.”

My mind whirled. There seemed to be nothing I could say that would convince this lady that my story, although fiction, was based on the actual incidents surrounding the blast.

“Then,” she continued, “you mention ‘sheriff.’ This isn’t a western. If this story takes place in 1980, you wouldn’t call law enforcement ‘sheriff,’ it would be ‘police'."

I tried to keep out the incredulity from my voice. “Where we live in Washington State, our local law enforcement is conducted by the Sheriff’s Department.”

She sighed. “I guess I just don’t understand you people.”