A while back, a mom I know, a total Martha Stewart type, waxed poetic about the rituals her family has to make events special.
I sighed and wrote the whole idea off. In the last few years, whooping things up has gotten harder and less exiting. Thinking about what she said, I just felt less-than, and piled on another heavy weight to my crumbling sense of achievement. I was certain that my efforts on huge ritualistic efforts like Christmas would be pathetic in comparison to hers.
But this morning, as I got up for my early-morning trip to the bathroom, our gigantic puppy followed me, as he usually does. As I sat down, he, having broken through all my modesty barriers, put his head on my lap for his morning scratch. It starts at his head, involves a long linger at the ears, then all the way down the spine for a good minute or two at the rump. He sighs blissfully. He counts on it and it is how, at the start of the day, I let him know I love him.
It occurred to me in mid-scratch that we have plenty of rituals – they’re just not very dramatic. I hadn’t thought to look at them in this way.
I looked over my typical day. Once I get to the kitchen, I usually make and bring coffee to my husband, who is slower getting out of bed than I am. Until this year, I’d often tickle and tease the girls awake at 7 (not that it worked well, but it was fun). This year they are setting and using alarm clocks, but I still try to be in a good-enough mood to be pleasant and funny while they eat and I make their lunches.
We’ve been reading out loud to our kids in the evenings since forever, going through all seven Harry Potter books. While one of the adults read, the non-readers drew, did crafts, knitted or dozed. It has served as a wonderful way for us to meet their urgent need to stay current with their friends, while slowly introducing subjects, like murder and torture, that we felt they were too young for.
This fall, we’re doing the same with the Hunger Games, and its dicey, scary content. They know what’s coming — via their friends — but they can take it in slowly and we can talk about any questions that come up. One twist; we’re playing the audiobook, so both exhausted parents can also rest, color or knit for half and hour.
This past summer, the girls and I slept outside most nights, all falling asleep together listening to crickets and watching heat lightening. Maybe we’ll do it again next summer. Right now when I put the girls to bed, there’s a different routine for each child. One wants a short story, and then three objects (last night’s was alligator, cat and dolphin) that she can try to build a scenario around (a house with a cat situated right at a river mouth where the alligator lives and where dolphins can swim in to visit). Then she “mixes” me, herself and all the animals a bad-dream protection “soup” that we slurp down noisily. As I leave, I promise to check on her 50 million gazillion times.
The other daughter is a little more nervous about the night, sleeps with lights on, but doesn’t really want to talk. So she draws and then lies down to sleep while I read to myself for a few minutes and then (hah!) try to mediate. I always nod off and my dozey girl loves to watch my head sink down to my chest and then bob back up. It cracks her up, and she then believes me when I tell her I have to leave to go to bed. I promise her I will check on her “real soon”. Which I do, but only once.
Those are some of my rituals for our day. I realize now that if I look more carefully, we also have some simple lovely ones developing for the weeks, like the poker night with chocolate chips, and for the years, such as a Labor Day camping trip.
I’ve thought of rituals as something that I, as a mother, have needed to initiate, build, and maintain, like handmade birthday gifts or exhausting event-related bouts of cooking.
But naturally, some just-as-important rituals have just evolved as the girls, the dog, the husband communicate their need. And my job is to offer these with my hands, humor and creativity. Like stitches in a quilt that tack the fabric together, these little rites keep the family grounded, during the days and weeks, binding us together, shooing the bad dreams away.