Last week, Katherine and I read See You Next Year by Andrew Larsen and Todd Stewart. See You Next Year tells the story of a family’s return to their favorite beach spot. It got me thinking about a piece I wrote last year. Our family travels to LBI every summer and I am often torn. There are so many places to go in this world and I wonder if we should venture further and do something new and different. But then I have moments like the one I write about below and I read books like See You Next Year and I am reminded of the power of tradition.
A blue ball and an orange ball bounce on the waves, floating slowly back to the beach. These balls have taken the same ride thousands of times over the past 30 years. No matter how far you throw them, they always return. When I first vacationed with my now husband we were in our mid twenties. In the bottom of his mother’s canvas beach bag were two plastic balls with the name Rob scrawled on them in child-like scribble. I have a hard time keeping track of a grocery list over the course of the week but this woman had kept two plastic balls in her beach bag for decades.
Earlier this year, I sat quietly at the beach and heard, “Want to throw the balls?” Katherine, my youngest and her favorite cousin Jason, stood in the sand, drying off after a swim in the rough surf. He jumped up and they ran off, their plan clear despite the few words exchanged. They reached in to the bottom of their grandma’s bag, each taking a small plastic ball, the size of their fists. For years, the grown ups stood at the edge of the water with them, afraid that as toddlers and pre-schoolers, they might follow the balls deep in to the ocean. Now they are eight and nine and ready to exert their independence. We move our chairs down closer to the water but we do not join them.
“Remember the time the life guard had to get the ball?” my sister-in-law asked.
“A life guard? I thought it was a surfer?” my husband thought out loud.
“No, “ I said, “It was that life guard. The one with the curly blond hair.”
And on and on we went. The time the water was too cold to play, the time the wind blew the balls in to the group of swimmers in front of the life-guard chair. The time the kids fought over who would throw the blue ball and who would throw the orange one.
Each year, I think we should plan a different vacation. The world is large and our time on it is short. I wonder why we go to the same house at the same beach year after year. And then we have conversations like the one above and I remember the value of tradition in our lives.
Family traditions give us a shared story. We become connected through the tales we tell and these stories provide comfort and familiarity in a world full of change. These shared stories bring together families across geographical distance and across generations. They become a piece of the family puzzle that we can all understand. Family traditions provide predictability to children who benefit from knowing what comes next. In a world where the adults make the majority of the decisions, children revel in knowing how the story will end. With these shared stories we collect memories and comfort.
As Katherine and Jason throw the balls again and again in to the ocean, I close my eyes and imagine these same balls being thrown by my husband and his sister in to the same waves thirty years earlier. The sun begins to get lower in the sky and I reach behind my chair to put on my cover-up. At the same time, the kids run up from the water. They have heard the loud bell of the ice cream truck and one tradition blends easily in to the next. Already I know that Katherine will choose a strawberry frozen lemonade while Jason’s will be lemon. The ice cream truck offers dozens of choices but these will be theirs. And with that, the day continues.