Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Family Traditions

I’ve been thinking a lot about traditions lately and how they help define who we are. (See my post on how to use traditions in your writing here.) They can have a powerful influence on the decisions we make in life - both good and bad. As I struggled to bring my  protagonist to life, I realized that her heritage was only skin deep. There were no long-standing traditions or beliefs that influenced her. Even though she spends very little time with her family during the course of the story, she still should be deeply influenced by them. So, I started to think about traditions that are specific to me. 

One of which, I’d like to share with you. 

This tradition started during The Great Depression and family became more important than ever. My great-grandmother had been recently widowed and she had a lot of children to raise and support. Her older son, James, could have stayed independent or started a family of his own, but he didn’t. He moved back home and helped support his mother and siblings. But, times being what they were, the family still struggled and James was determined that special occasions, like birthdays, would not pass unnoticed.  

James couldn't let a birthday go unnoticed, so he created a birthday tradition of his own. The night before one of his brother's or sister's birthday, James would make a unique 'happy birthday' sign and put it in the child’s room while he or she was sleeping. He also left a small bag of candy. When the child awoke and saw their special sign, they were delighted. They loved a sign that was just for them - more even, than the treasured bag of candy. And of course, when James’s birthday rolled around, his room was filled with little signs and a bag of candy from all the kids who adored him. 

When James’s siblings grew up, many of them passed along his tradition, including my grandmother and then my mother. My mother, however, changed it up a bit. She opted for balloons and streamers rather than a sign and candy. But the intention was the same. Waking up to a room decorated with balloons and streamers is magical and you can’t help but start your birthday with a smile. It is one of my favorite memories of childhood.

I can barely remember my Great Uncle James, for he passed away when I was quite young. But he is still well remembered and his acts of generosity and love have continued on. Sometimes I think of him when I’m standing in the kitchen late at night, blowing up balloons. Did he have any idea that this tradition he started would last four generations? And hopefully more? 
Now that my kids stay up late studying, I decorate their rooms while they're at school.
This allows for more complex designs, like this one. 

This tradition isn’t the kind that sparks a story-worthy question, but it is the kind that strengthens the bonds of family. The kind that rounds a person out, or fleshes out a character. Now, as I work with my protagonist’s backstory, I think of all the traditions that may have affected her life. Those that might influence her inward journey, and those that round out her life. 

 As you think about your own work, what traditions do your characters follow? Which ones to they rebel against? Consider how deeply tradition affects your life and use that richness to strengthen your stories.