Traditions Don't Have to Change, We Do

Filed under: Siblings, Empty Nest, Opinions, Relationships

My wife is juggling Nick's PowerBook, trying to frame him, me and the menorah on the mantel so that his sister can see us all. I strike a match, touch it to the shamus, the candle that lights all the others at Hanukkah, and we begin the three prayers sung on the first night of the holiday.

Emily is joining us from Lyon where she's spending the first semester of her junior year in college, and the Internet connection to France is one step up from a string and two cans, so there's a delay that turns our singing into an unanticipated round.

But it's lovely.

menorah

The menorah, lit via videoconference. Credit: Jeremy Gerard

And this year it's sad for me, too, though I haven't let on to anyone.

Do you think it strange to name my Christmas season column after a song from "Fiddler on the Roof"? Well, why not. We're just your typical Upper West Side of Manhattan family, with Jewish-Christian parents and two kids, all staunchly godless and just as staunchly devoted to deity-loving traditions of our own making. These include a major Thanksgiving production with family and orphaned friends, a devious and ferociously competitive Easter egg hunt, apples and honey at Rosh Ha-Shana, an enormous Christmas Day dinner after opening the presents Leslie has been wrapping since July and Passover seders spent arguing whether the insolent son really deserves to be cast out or should instead be celebrated as a questioning, counter-culture hero who ought to sue his parents for child abuse.

And lighting the candles at Hanukkah. Emily and Nick know the tunes and the Hebrew words by heart, though they couldn't care less what they mean. What they love is the doing of it together, the family ritual in which they've taken part since they were in pre-k.

Lark, the herald angel, atop the Gerard family tree, in honor of the family dog. Credit: Jeremy Gerard

In "Fiddler on the Roof," Tevye the milkman asks, Why are our traditions so important to us? "I'll tell you," he says to the audience, shrugging. "I don't know."

I'll tell you why; I do know. Because they're traditions. Along with home-cooked meals every night (provided by Leslie, who could barely boil water when Emily was born almost 21 years ago but threw herself into learning with missionary zeal) and hard-earned summer vacations every August at the same tiny cottage on Cape Cod, these rituals have helped to define our mishmash family in an era of seemingly inevitable fractionalization. Forget any of them and we face the wrath -- not of God-or-whomever -- but of Emily and Nick, which can be fearsome, especially when they're in cahoots.

So even when Emily left to begin college life in Philadelphia, the miracle of iSight allowed us to videoconference the lighting of the Hanukkah candles, which had always been preceded by the annual fight over who gets not to light the first candle (because that person will get the eighth and final night, the most candles to light). Well, now that we're videoconferencing, that rite of squabble is history.

So why sad?

After all, Em will be home in a few weeks, living again just a short train ride away. In a couple of months, we'll all be heading out to Kansas City for the wedding of their half-sister, my older daughter, Claire.

But for parents of high school seniors, it's the season not only of Hanukkah and Christmas, but also of Early Admission Decisions. This week, Nick finds out whether it's all over but the tuition payments -- or whether the next four weeks will be multi-applications madness followed by additional months of nail biting.

And, of course, this also means we're beginning our holiday season with the last one of our kids living at home (in this case, the one who actually knows how to use iSight). All those summers when they were both at sleepaway camp haven't prepared me for the hollow that has begun to grow in my gut, the slow blossoming of imminent loss.

So I'm thinking Leslie and I have about six months to come up with some new, two-person traditions to fill the coming void. It's a daunting assignment, mostly because I can't bear the thought of it.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.