Traditions


When I hear the word tradition, I mentally picture a fiddler on the roof in the opening scene of Fiddler on the Roof where the Papa, the Mama, the sons and daughters did specific things because they were a tradition. Traditions are symbolic in meaning with special ties to the past. Some go back farther than anyone can remember and some begin out of necessity like the chicken’s tail.

I was preparing to roast a chicken using my grandmother’s secret recipe. Jeff came in and asked me why I was cutting off the tail, “Because my Mother did” I replied. When we visited my Mom he asked her, “Mom, why do you cut off the tail of the chicken before roasting.” “Because my Mother did.” she replied.

Not satisfied with either answer, we drove to the source – my grandmother’s home. My grandmother, the oldest of 13 children, was born in America. She was a voracious reader, a midwife, an excellent cook, had a heart of gold and a temper that would flared if you crossed her the wrong way. Her kitchen was her domain and that’s where we found her. After consuming some of her mouthwatering ricotta cookies, Jeff asked her the chicken tail question. She looked at him and said, “I don’t do that. I only did it years ago because the pan was too small to hold the whole bird.” Traditions.

For me, there’s nothing sadder than the ending of a tradition. I’m Italian by heritage and raised Catholic. The number of Italian traditions is only exceeded by the number of Catholic traditions. Combine the two and you can write a 365 day calendar! The Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fish is one of my fondest memories and traditions.

Why seven fish? No one really knows. Some insist it’s a religious symbol and others a marketing ploy to get people to eat more fish. Regardless of the origin, it was a tradition in our family dating back to the early 1900. It carried with it no hard and fast rules regarding what fish to serve however in our home, it wasn’t complete unless baccalà and smelts were on the table. Over the years, the Feast of the Seven Fishes moved from my grandmother’s home to my Mother’s and finally to me. That’s when the change started. The younger generations turned their nose up to the traditional fish dishes wanting only mac and cheese, buttered spaghetti and chicken fingers. The tradition didn’t just die – it vanished!

As some traditions die others are born. Every New Year’s morning my nephew, who lives in Southern California, drives his family of 5 to a specific beach. Here they write the former year in the sand and watch as the tide takes it away with all its good and not so good happenings. They then write the new year in the sand, sharing their hopes and dreams for the upcoming year. Traditions.

In the words of Tevye, the Papa in Fiddler on the Roof, “without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.” Keep your traditions and pass them on.

Letter-writing

Recently I attended a meeting.  We were celebrating the conclusion of a yearlong community service project. As I waited for the meeting to begin, the Executive Director for the community organization our team worked with handed me an envelope with my name on the front. Never one to wait for anything, I tore it open and there was a thank you note. The feelings, sentiment, and thanks expressed were lovely, reminding me of just how important and appreciated our work had been.  I thanked her and re-read the note as she walked around the room searching for others on our team to give them their notes.

When she returned, I thanked her again and said the normal things, “Oh, it wasn’t necessary”, “You didn’t have to do this” and then I realized, I’m glad she did and I told her! At this point we both agreed that receiving a handwritten note carried with it a special feeling – one that tweeting, texting, and emailing cannot duplicate. We also agreed that letter-writing is a dying art. 

Maybe it’s a generational thing. I’m a baby-boomer. I was raised to write a thank you note to anyone for anything, no matter how big or small. Even if the gift was handed to me and I thanked them on the spot, a handwritten note was required!

There’s something about receiving a handwritten note. From the moment you open your mailbox or pick up the mail from your slotted door and see that envelope addressed to you something happens. First thing I do is look at the return address and smile at seeing the sender’s name. As a kid, the first thing I did was slit open the envelope and turn it upside down, hoping something ‘green’ fell out. Now as a senior, the sentiment inside is worth so much more.

Over the years, I’ve saved many letters, cards, and notes, from family, friends, work acquaintances, and even former customers. I read them often…on birthdays, anniversaries, rainy days, when I’m feeling happy and when I’m feeling down. That’s when the magic happens – the person is there with me, even if just for a few minutes.

After my Dad died, I was tasked with going through his papers. I found notes he received and saved. The treasure for me was a note I sent him when I was nine. In the note, I told him that I was going to become a nun because I was never going to find a man like him to marry.  Well, I didn’t become a nun and the man I married is as special and good as my Dad.

Letters aren’t reserved just for those we know and love. A few years ago, my father-in-law, a WWII vet, participated in an event focused on honoring and celebrating vets. The organization that hosted the event is Honor Flight Network. (www.honorflight.org)

The bus tour included a visit to the WWI, WWII, Korean, Vietnam, and Air Force memorials…all to the cheers of hundreds of volunteers and tourists. For Dad’s group, the day concluded with a dinner at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in D.C. During the bus ride to the retirement home, a special event took place…mail call! This was extremely important during WWII. The goal was to boost the morale of the soldiers overseas by getting mail from wives, mothers, sweet-hearts, children, and others letting them know that they were remembered and to keep them up to date on what was happening on the home front. The Honor Flight mail call consisted of handwritten letters from family, close friends, school children, and a local politician. EVERY vet received at least 1 letter. Dad received over 300! He was shocked both by the magnitude of cards and the sentiment, love, affection and sincere appreciation for the kindnesses he’d extended to so many over the years. In reality, Dad was reading what would be said of him at his memorial service. Recently he celebrated his 96th birthday and still reads those cards.

Do you know how one thing can cause a domino effect? Well, those cards did just that for me. It got me thinking about the people who inspired me in my lifetime. Many people, especially women, impacted, influenced and, unbeknownst to them, acted as role models. Do they know the impact they had on me? Probably not. So I decided to tell them – in a letter of appreciation. Over several weeks I wrote 20 letters to the women who helped me grow as a person, an individual and a business owner. What reaction did I expect? No idea. What reaction did I get? One that was totally overwhelming, heart-warming and humbling. Everyone responded and several have ‘passed it on’ by writing similar notes to those who inspired them. The power of letter-writing.

Is there someone who has made a difference in your life? Someone, you just want to tell how much you love them? If so, tell them in a handwritten note. It will enrich both of your lives and become a treasure.

Christmas Traditions

Jeff and I had been dating for about a year and I thought it was time for him to meet my family and experience a traditional Italian Christmas Eve. I didn’t however, warn him about the Twilight Zone he was about to enter. However, I did give strict instructions to my family. No interrogation, no Rosanne stories and please don’t mention Uncle Guido or the cash hidden behind the wall at Grandmom’s. We’ll save those for his second visit.

Upon entering the house, Jeff asked “What is that”? “It’s our aluminum Christmas tree” I answered. That’s right, we had an aluminum tree proudly adorned with bubble lights and tinsel. My Dad called it the tree of the future – no fuss, no muss, saves time and money. Put it up, take it down and store it. He was right except for the year he jammed the branches in upside down making the tree look like an arrow spearing the carpet. It took Mom and me hours to reassemble.

Our celebration consisted of dinner, singing carols, and reading The Night Before Christmas. Jeff was amazed by the variety of seafood served. I was grateful he liked fish otherwise it could have been a long night for him and a short relationship for me. Fried smelts were his favorite. Smelts are small fish eaten whole – eyes and tails included. They’re delicious especially if they’re floured and fried so you don’t see the eyes.

After dessert, Mom put Perry Como on the turntable and handed out the sheet music. Everyone was singing off key and loudly when disaster struck. Uncle Tony’s false teeth flew out of his mouth and landed on Uncle Fred’s knee. We all laughed as Fred chased Tony screaming “You bit me”. These two brothers were the best people for such a happening. Uncle Tony was a shrewd self-made contractor. Once, to insure payment, he placed a sheet of glass halfway down a client’s chimney. When the home owner called raging that his house was filled with smoke, Tony ask for the payment, got it then dropped a brick down the chimney to break the glass. Uncle Fred was also successful having worked his way from the mail room to the C Suite at the largest bank in Philadelphia. As down to earth as Tony was, Fred was just the opposite and the perfect recipient of a bite by a set of false choppers. As a grand finale, one of my nine uncles – usually the one who could still stand and read by the end of the night, read the classic poem.

Jeff survived my family and learned how to use a spoon to twirl his spaghetti. He also came away with an appreciation for an aluminum tree and the importance of Italian Christmas Eve traditions. Do you have holiday traditions? Continue them, pass them on and hold them in your heart. This is the best present you can give or receive.