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Memory-Making Mom: Building Traditions That Breathe Life Into Your Home
by Jessica Smartt
Learn More | Meet Jessica Smartt
The Worst Day, The Best Gift
- You are what you remember.
THREE YEARS AGO, ON A BEAUTIFUL SUNDAY IN JUNE, we nearly lost our son. For all of the scheming, controlling, and protecting I have done for his entire life, this time—the worst time—it was my fault. Me, the mom. My fault he had an allergic reaction requiring four EpiPen injections. My fault we rode in the ambulance. My fault we spent two days in the ICU. I was the one who made his oatmeal, made the other oatmeal, confused them, didn’t watch.
There was a lot of guilt.
There was a lot of fear. So, so much fear. A large load of it, as you’d imagine, over things like, How do we actually go on? How do we live knowing one single bite of the wrong food could do this?
There was something else, though.
Late that evening, I sat in the hospital recliner, feet tucked under me, listening to the beeps and hums of medical equipment. I watched his little sleeping chest rise and fall rhythmically. (Thank You, Jesus.) In the first dark calm of the whole horrible day, a different kind of fear swept over me. It wasn’t fear of losing him. It was fear of parenting with deep regret. I saw the last six years of his little life playing like a movie in my head. Where was I in that movie? I was rushing. I didn’t make eye contact; I was busy. I was on my phone a lot. The days were mostly slurred together in one long monotonous blur.
I sat in that awful hospital room and wept. Wept for the stupid allergies, yes, but wept for my missed chances. And, I realized through sobs, I was terrified. I was terrified, of course, of losing our son. Lord, please help us; he is in Your hands. But I was also terrified of him living, and me texting, hurrying, cleaning, and rushing through his childhood. We did not lose our son that day. But if we had? And those six years that felt like a snap of the fingers—what if that was our chance at parenting? The rush of regret was nearly palpable.
I feared this song would play on repeat through all three of our children’s lives. I feared we would feel that same sense of crushing incompleteness eighteen years later, closing the door to some safety award-winning sedan in which we’d packed their stuff, kissing them through the window, and watching them drive off to a dorm room or apartment somewhere. The car would dim out of view, and we’d feel terrible remorse at the opportunities we had missed to make memories that matter.
I want to parent well.
I want to send my children off with memories for roots, love for wings. I want my children to know they are loved, to know what they believe, and to have the tools they need to succeed. I don’t want any regrets.
In a strange way, this allergic reaction was a gift. A wake-up call, as those ambulance-ride kind of days tend to be. I knew we needed a change. But how? Gradually, the answer came to me: what our family needed was traditions.
Traditions: The Answer We Didn 't Know We Needed
I know it seems a curious answer at first. How could chipped ceramic plates with painted-on rabbits, that “same old” devotional book fished from under the bed each night, pizza on paper plates every Friday . . . how could these trifles satisfy the deep longings we have for our children? These things are little, insignificant nothings. Yet grouped together, repeated over and over, expected and longed for week after week, Christmas after Christmas—these rituals tell a story, make a childhood, bind a family, build a faith.
I knew this was true when I watched my sister and her family. They seemed to celebrate everything with whimsy and inexplicable energy. Friday night? Pizza time! Saint Patrick’s Day? Beer bread and shepherd’s pie! Snow day? The legendary snowman pancakes of course! And on and on. It was insanely annoying to watch, like a real-live Pinterest explosion three houses down from my own.
I couldn’t articulate it, but I wanted my life—our family—to be more like that. While our months seemed to drone on, theirs were punctuated with special, predictable traditions. Fun, basically. They were having more fun.
It took some time, but slowly it dawned on me there was no reason we couldn’t also become a traditions family. Sure, I was a little late to the ball game, but who cares? Couldn’t we still give it a shot? As these things tend to go, the kids were not in the slightest reticent to try some of my new changes. They received every new celebration and family ritual with childhood elation.
As our home has become filled with more “specials” and more exclamations of “today’s the day!” I have seen with my own eyes the gifts that come from being a tradition-family.
What Is A Tradition
There are plenty of long, fancy definitions for tradition, but I think of it simply: traditions are a planned determination to remember, celebrate, and value what is important.
The fun things. The special things. The meaning things. The things with truth and goodness and warmth. Traditions vary from person to person, family to family, culture to culture. And that’s the beauty; we decide what is meaningful, and we celebrate it.
As I think to my own childhood, few traditions were more wonderful than our yearly beach vacation to Daytona Beach, Florida. I can tell you exactly when it started. One day we kids were eating tuna-fish sandwiches at the beat-up oak kitchen table when Mom asked, “Guys, how would you like to go to Daytona Beach with your cousins this summer?”
Waves of prepubescent joy shot through my body. Our cousins and dearest friends in the whole world? Could anything be more exciting? It absolutely could not. We had been to Daytona Beach for the past two summers, but to have our dearest cousin-friends digging holes in the sand with us, drinking nonalcoholic strawberry daiquiris on vinyl lounge chairs, and correcting one-piece bathing suit wedgies from too much boogie boarding—guys, this was all almost too exciting to imagine. This was the pinnacle of life, right here. I had reached euphoria at ten years old.
Our two families lived four states away, so we had to share our joy long distance. We wrote giddy letters back and forth for months (the real kind, with stamps and misspellings and purple Lisa Frank stickers). As the week neared, we’d go shopping for a brand-new outfit, maybe two if we were lucky. One year I got purple and green shorts with daisy appliques. I think I refolded them a dozen times in my suitcase to make sure the daisies didn’t crumple the wrong way, you know, in transit. Years later when I gushed to my husband, Todd, about Daytona Beach, he said it sounded like I was confused and was instead describing Bermuda.
Daytona was the highlight of every year, the best part of every summer. One year Uncle Joe burned blisters on his feet from walking three miles in the sand to eat oysters. One year there were wildfires in Florida, and we couldn’t get a tan (cue teenage heartbreak) because the cloud of ashes was so thick it’d drop pieces of soot on our towels. That year was a bust. But we went back every summer for ten years. It was tradition.
I doubt my parents ever sat down with bullet-point lists and parental intention as they resolved, “We need a tradition. Let’s make it Daytona Beach, every last week in June.” As with many traditions, it grew in importance. Maybe you remember a few of your own from your childhood. More likely than not, you have some right now with your own family—maybe some you haven’t even realized are traditions.
I don’t know what prompted you to pick up this book. Maybe you’ve been longing for more richness and more celebrating in your home. Maybe your family has had its own wake-up-call experience, like our son’s allergic reaction, and you’ve resolved to be more intentional about the things that matter. Whatever your story, I believe that the message of this book can change the course of your family. I believe that five, ten, or twenty years later, the traditions you start now can be some of your family’s most treasured memories. I’m here to hold your hand as we dream about what this could look like for your family.
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