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Letter From Home: “Traditions” 1/1/19

January 1, 2019

As one calendar year ends–and a new one begins–there is a bevy of changes all around us.  Many states implement new laws, we will grow accustomed to writing ’19’ on checks, and many will swear a new exercise routine is their ticket to healthier living.  I make a couple resolutions, too, that are more modest–and therefore, hopefully–more achievable. They are of the type so unworthy of mention that I will leave that topic with the close of this paragraph.

Instead of thinking about changes at this time of year, I often find myself pondering all the things I have no intention of removing or leaving behind.

As I poured the last of the coffee into my mug I saw the beans soaking in the kitchen for the soup which is a New Year’s Day tradition from my childhood. James comes from such a background, too.  But as a New Englander the recipe of his youth were baked beans for the fresh start of the year.  For the soup being planned at our home there will be seven types of beans, all coming from his grandparent’s Maine farm.  There is a circle of commonality and comfort that does not end but widens to include others.

The coffee cup I used today came from the top of the kitchen shelves where it is brought down only a couple times each year.  I took one of the matching mugs in 2011 when leaving the family home for the last time.  The mugs were what mom poured coffee into for afternoon conversations, or the cup which always accompanied a slice of pie.  As she was born on December 31st the cup is always brought down, filled again and again, until the coffee pot is finished.  Then it is washed, placed back on the upper shelf, and used again in August.

Watching the snow fall on the Madison isthmus on the last day of the year got me to thinking about the winter landscapes out the living room window of the family home.   Pines across the road, and the mighty oaks not far from the house all laced in white.  Growing up as a teenager in rural Wisconsin in the ’70’s was an isolating experience.  I always felt safe and loved.  But there was no one my age anywhere near by.  That always hit me at the close of the year.

On New Year’s Eve there would be the annual televised big-band sound of Guy Lombardo which was upbeat and brassy.  I still have fond memories of that sound and how it made me feel. (In later years I was pumped to broadcast a big-band show each evening on WDOR.)  While Guy was broadcast on CBS, the ball drop from New York took place on ABC.  But after those events my parents were tired and fell asleep.   So many a New Year (Central Time) was greeted with a book in my bedroom.  And without my knowing a tradition started.

At this time of year I always start a new read, one I had placed aside, but really wanted to open.  When in my 20’s, and out for the big night, (first in Door County and then in later years in Madison) I would come home and read a chapter, or at least a few pages, of a new book before bed.  At the age of 56 that tradition continues.  Everything in the larger world may be chaos, and sound reasoning may be in short supply, but there is still a firm foundation that goes back to my teen years.  The New Year begins with a book.

This New Years’ book is Richard Brookhiser’s John Marshall and the opening chapter underscores another tradition which never goes out of fashion.   Tackling congress.  In Marshall’s case–the Continental Congress.

Regarding that congress, Marshall wrote, “opinions of the most pernicious tendency prevailed” and “measures essential to the safety of the nation were never taken in season”.

It is often remarked that some things never change.   That is too often true for the things that truly do need revamping.  But then there are those other parts of life which are just settled into our routines, and lifestyles.  Almost, it seems, into our DNA.  Those are the traditions which are invited back into our lives each year.

They keep us grounded.  They remind us of who we are.  Why we are tough.  What makes us smile.  What makes us human.

May it always be so.

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