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Building Family Rituals [AmeriForce magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
AmeriForce magazine, www.ameriforce.net
Summer 2006

HOW DO YOU KEEP FAMILY members close when they are a world away? Before Gen. Frederick Franks, Jr., commander of 7th Corps, left for the Middle East to help coordinate Operation Desert Storm, his wife Denise and daughter Margie Bozek bought a Christmas tree and tied yellow ribbons all over it.

On the branches, the women placed the special ornaments they’d collected from cities they’d lived around the world. Then Denise prepared a Christmas feast — even though it was early in the fall.

“We knew the holidays would be tough for my sons without Grandpa around, so we decided to celebrate before he left,” she recalls. “It was neat for my kids because they got to have Christmas twice that year. And when the holiday came in December, it was easier for us to be away from Dad because we’d already had a celebration with him.”

Thankfully, Gen. Franks came home safe and sound, but the experience of having him gone during holiday time taught Margie something important.

“There are so many military families who are separated from loved ones — not just at Christmas, but throughout the year,” she realizes. “So that year we decided to start a family ritual, and now every holiday season we tie yellow ribbons on our trees and regularly say prayers to honor all families who are
making sacrifices.”

Of course, many military families have similar traditions ranging from the simple (like eating Christmas dinner in pajamas) to the sublime (attending a midnight mass decked out in their finest garments, then eating breakfast on the family’s best china at 2 a.m.).

Why are rituals so important?

“The celebration of rituals commemorates the past and gives meaning to the present,” writes Nancy Pauline Bruning in her book, Rhythms and Cycles: Sacred Patterns in Everyday Life, noting sociologists, psychologists, and historians alike believe rituals are one of the most basic elements of human nature.

The earliest known ritual comes from evidence of a funeral held about 18,000 years BC. Today, rituals continue to surround our rites of passage, from births to funerals, graduations to weddings. Experts tell us the simple act of getting dressed up and going to church, synagogue or mosque is a ritual. So is reciting religious texts, performing special music or dances, eating (or not eating) particular foods at Thanksgiving, Easter, and Passover, and more.

Of course, families don’t have to save their rituals for holiday time.

Consider a tradition that teacher Jan Mulvaney put into place when her husband Merle was working as an Army helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War.

“My daughter Kristen was only three years old when he was deployed for his second tour, and I didn’t want Merle to miss that precious time in her life,” explains the Northern Virginia educator, who is currently the Director of Instruction for the City of Fairfax Schools. “So, we decided that every month he was away we’d make a tape of her talking to him. After he received it, Merle would ‘write back’ by making one for us.

Those tapes kept us going, and listening to her tell him stories about the things they’d do together when he got home was enough to make me cry.”

Not only was her daughter unbelievably adorable, Jan says the tapes were the most practical form of communication. “Remember, overseas phone calls were not available to most troops in the 1960s, and even if you could get to the phone, the sound quality wasn’t clear at all. The tapes [which were actually the old-fashioned reel-to-reel type] were the best way to keep in touch.”

Those tapes are now family heirlooms, and when Kristen’s 6-year-old daughter Grace gets a little older, Jan plans to share them with her. “It’s always so hard to be apart,” Jan knows, “so my goal was to keep things as normal as possible for my daughter. I put pictures of Merle out all around the house so she’d feel like he was near, and then we just went on about our business. We colored Easter eggs, she went to school, and we went to church and visited with our friends. Life went on, and I think maintaining the simple rituals
of our daily routine helped us get through the separation.”

When Merle finally came home after his three tours in Vietnam, Jan says that yet another ritual came about.

“I started to be give thanks many times a day for the little things — like the fact that he’d come home safely, or when he’d cook me a pot of hard boiled eggs for my lunch that week,” she explains. “Sometimes I’d overhear friends bicker about what one spouse wasn’t doing to help around the house, and I would just
laugh to myself. I think the experience of having Merle away taught me to realize what is truly important. To this day, I am conscious of the importance of maintaining perspective. In fact, that has
become my daily ritual.”

It seems that when it comes to establishing a family ritual, there are few rules as to what makes it right or necessary. Perhaps the point of establishing a ritual, then, is simply to take the opportunity to be grateful for what you have.

The Art of Abundance

Consider the ideas that author Candy Paull describes in her 2002 bestseller, “The Art of Abundance.”

“The art of abundance is the art of awareness,” she says in her introduction. “It is a way to count our blessings and practice mindfulness in our daily living. Becoming aware of the small, the little, and the least, offers us an opportunity to open our hearts to a larger perspective. We learn to value the tastes, textures,
scents, sounds, and sights of our lives as they present themselves to us moment by moment.”

Some of Paull’s ideas may come in handy when developing your own family rituals:

• Play dress up and take the family once a year to a special play or concert.
• Once a month, rent a video to learn something new: A sonata by Beethoven, or a tour of London, perhaps.
• Every week, take time to pamper yourself and those you love: Buy bath bubbles, learn to give a foot massage, or pick up a pack of scented candles.
• Each Sunday, take turns serving breakfast in bed to someone in your family. Be sure to have them return the favor for you.
• Go to a bakery. Smell the fresh baked goods. Buy something wonderful and take it home to share with your loved ones.
• Look through old pictures, and make it a ritual to realize how much you have.


More AmeriForce magazine Articles

"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.