The sparks of my rebellion against rituals were fanned by the church services to which I was dragged as an unwilling teenager. Envious of my friends in Protestant parishes, which promoted religion as an interactive engagement, I found myself singularly unmoved by the grand theatre of the “high church” in which I was forced to return for repeat engagements of seasonal “performances”. If it’s April, this must be Easter…here we go again.
Reaching adulthood, I made for the exits as quickly as I could. I reluctantly consented to attend my medical school graduation for the sake of my parents who were happier that I was a doctor than I was. But I notoriously avoided “pomp and circumstance” as much as possible for many years after that, underscoring my decision with cynical remarks about the foolishness of such events. Even today, when my “day job” asks me to don a cap and gown, I find myself looking for someone—anyone—who can sweat in those togs in my stead.
I’ve been lucky to have a husband who embraces traditions. He’s been the “someone” who has often represented our family at religious, social, and academic events that involve boring or aimless rituals. Occasionally, when it involved our children, I’d agree to go along, usually with a smart phone or a concealable paperback to while away the hours when the principal’s daughter was singing “Away in a Manger” in the key of B-flat…D-sharp…F-minor…
With three children now racing through their teens, I read a lot of books. (And learned to appreciate the value of perfect pitch.) By the time my youngest squirmed his way through the requisite pageants, ceremonies, and presentations, I was yearning for the exits once again. With more than a twinge of guilt, I honed my negotiation skills with hubby to “You go to the school play and I’ll help him with the diorama.” All the while wondering why we were all tortured by these forced performances year after year. At least those of us whose children hadn’t even a trace of discernible thespian talents.
And then, my baby—oops, 8th grader, wrapped up middle school. His 10th grade brother verbalized my own cynicism about the upcoming ceremony with the eye roll and tone that only an adolescent can emit: “Graduation? It’s 8th grade!”
“Go with your Dad,” I chided. “Your brother came to yours.”
“Teaching!” came the cry from the adjacent den. “I can’t go, I’m giving a final!”
“Looks like it’s you and me,” my 10th grader snickered, adding with a snarky grin that only an adolescent can display. “Awesome.”
“Grrr,” I muttered under my breath, as we parked the car in the packed school lot and wended our way to the auditorium where a sea of blue- and white-gowned students mingled with enthusiastic parents and friends. “How do you do that eye roll again?” I whispered to Mr. 10th grade as we finally squeezed into a rare empty pair of seats among the crush, where we had a birds’-eye view…of rows and rows of the backs of heads.
“Can you see him?” I asked, unable to locate our graduate in the crowd.
“Don’t talk to me,” Mister 10th grade returned, his gaze averted. “I don’t want anyone to know I’m here with my mother.”
I think I did the eye roll reasonably well.
The lights dimmed, the curtain rose, and the stage was filled with the rowdy caucus of three-score teens. Only, decked primly and proudly in their gowns, the little boys and girls I expected to see had somehow magically been transformed into young adults, standing tall. The girls--women now—radiated exuberant confidence in their newly-discovered beauty and youth. The boys had quelled their own vibrant energy, and lay in wait, coiled, ready to spring. I didn’t welcome the stab of jealousy that intruded into my own joy in seeing my son growing up. For him and his classmates, the best years of their lives were yet to come. And I was no longer a young Mom.
A funny thought slipped into my mind. I could not remember the words to “Itsy Bitsy Spider”. How many times had I sung that silly song with my toddlers—was it yesterday? An earworm in my daily life ten years ago, and now…gone. The songs, the games, the homework, the projects, the dioramas, the soccer practice, T-ball, summer camp, sleepovers, field trips…the lyrics of our lives as a family with youngsters…now in the past and doomed to be forgotten as well? I had eschewed rituals, and yet, I had, in the course of living life as a parent, unknowingly participated in them—and enjoyed them. The rituals had been not only the markers of passing time, but the essential building blocks of our lives.
Middle school graduation celebrated the end of childhood for my son. At his age, with his vision clearly focused towards the future, he reveled in leaving the past behind. Commencement. My own vision dimmed—were those tears in my eyes? I recognized this night was the end of a chapter in my life, too, and that, even as I shared my son’s joy, I had permission, through this ritual, to mourn. Closure?
There were no phones, no books for me this time. I paid attention to every word, every note, every noise, trying to memorize this day for as long as I could. I recalled a young colleague who had briefly come back to work after battling malignant disseminated ovarian cancer. Faced with a less than optimistic prognosis, she had striven to return to the office and capture a last glimpse of normality and its implied gift of a future. Yet her return had really been a chance for her to say good-bye. I had seen her standing on a patio on a crisp, clear day, gazing at the flowers, the trees, the snow-capped mountains in the distance with a ravenous intensity, imprinting them on her soul for the trip beyond. She died a month later—and I hope she never forgets.
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