It was eighteen years ago in early autumn when my husband and I took our dog and our two-day-old marriage camping. Over the years, I’ve learned that most couples cannot begin to fathom why we would have thought a honeymoon camping trip was a good idea.
But it was.
After an initial scare over a questionable air mattress, everything about our getaway was extraordinary: the mild days and crisp nights; the virtually deserted state park with its sparkling lake; long walks wearing the hiking boots we’d given each other as wedding gifts; meals cooked together over a campfire; and guilt-free bedtime not long after the sun went down.
So, given that our honeymoon camping experience was such a triumph, Why not? – we reasoned as we drove east through the mountains and home to Richmond: Why not do this every fall? “It can be our anniversary tradition,” my new husband and I agreed.
The next year, after we pitched our tent fifty feet from what we soon discovered was a frat party, our new gas lantern exploded in a ball of flames, and that same questionable air mattress refused to rise to the occasion, we learned why not!
While driving thirty miles to the nearest town on a fruitless dinner odyssey (where I swear I saw a Pizza Hut sign, but we’ll never know for sure), we concluded that honeymoon camping trips are the stuff of once-in-a-lifetime, not of tradition.
But would experience be our teacher? Apparently not.
What is it about family life that makes us long for tradition? Why does that longing intensify so in the fall?
When it comes to the kids and autumnal activities, I have a kind of sensor for potential family traditions. Beep-beep-beep. It’s like a truck backing up in my brain. This went well. Look how they enjoyed raking the leaves into piles and jumping in them. Beep-beep-beep. The built-in tradition sensor sounds. We’ll do this again next year. We’ll make it a tradition!
Maybe it’s the appeal of ready-made fun – like one of those craft kits from Oriental Trading with all of the foam pieces included. Just pull the memory out of the bag and assemble! But there’s always something missing. Conditions are never truly right for rebuilding that leaf pile.
Consider Thanksgiving. One year, the women-children spent the entire day in creative overdrive. The result was a holiday production replete with Pilgrims and Native Americans in costume. A cornucopia overflowed with plastic bananas, apples, and a bag of Doritos for good measure. A playful raccoon and gray squirrel did a dance number. There were two performances, the show was that good. The next Turkey Day, longing for that sense of tradition, I was ready for a revival.
“No show this time?” I asked innocently.
“Mommy, that was last year.” Of course, it was.
Then, something remarkable happened. A tree started to grow in our kitchen. The next year it happened again. Could this be a holiday tradition actually taking root? Even now, I hate to mention it, lest it be jinxed. But here we are again, a few days after Halloween, grabbing a twig or two from the backyard. Here we are cutting paper leaves from orange, yellow, and red construction paper to fill a basket next to the Tree of Thanks.
Every year, as Thanksgiving approaches and the trees in area parks and yards shed their leaves, our tree on the kitchen island – grows fuller. That’s because we all write what we’re thankful for on the paper leaves and hang them on the branches. Visiting friends and family are encouraged to do the same. Then on Thanksgiving day, we read the leaves aloud before digging in. I collect the pieces of paper and store them in a bag with the year marked on it.
All the things we’re thankful for are documented this way: love, sisters, voting, Book Bowl, family, Doctor Who, education (even math!), art, church, soccer, Harry Potter, Mr. Smith, pepperoni rolls, Texas de Brazil, NBA basketball, rootbeer floats, red peppers …
So despite our pretty dismal record for anniversary camping and establishing other fall customs, there’s one that helps us take stock of our gratitude as it grows each year. Every November, in this family, we proudly stand by our Tree of Thanks. If you’ve been searching for a tradition, why not grow one of your own?