Paper Plates Will Work: On Keeping Family Traditions Simple

Stanton and I have been parents for seven years now. Before our older daughter, Grace, was born, we attended a baby-care class together. Yes, we were those first-time parents (or, at least, I was): hyper organized, well-researched and well-intentioned…and completely clueless.

I don’t remember much from that class. A clear memory I do have, though, is that the instructor (a labor and delivery nurse) encouraged everyone to think about family traditions they’d like to create once they brought their newborns home from the hospital.

A baby-care class that had carved out time for…family traditions? As our younger daughter, Anna, would say, “Huh?” Shouldn’t we delve back into Braxton Hicks, bonding and belly-button cleaning?

Family traditions…really?

But Stanton and I dutifully did as instructed. We talked about family traditions. We even wrote them down.

What did we come up with? Well, friends…seven years later, we have no idea. I want to say that, seven years ago, we thought a fun, future family tradition might be a regular game night. I am almost positive this is one of the things we came up with. But I can’t say for sure.

I also think we said we’d say grace before dinner every night. But again, I don’t know…and, anyway, we don’t regularly, even though we are thankful… So another uncertainty.

Our first few years of parenthood went by in a blink. A predominantly frazzled blink.

Yes, we were those first-time parents (or, at least, I was): hyper organized, well-researched and well-intentioned…and completely clueless.

At this point in our family life, though, we both feel more confident, more contented (and much better rested) than we did then. We’re older. Maybe not wiser, but we’ve had some experiences. And we’re able to be more conscious of the choices we’re making for our daughters.

Now, we’re consciously trying to create family traditions.

And they aren’t always fancy, friends.

So Grace recently turned 7. The day before her birthday, I told her she could pick any dinner she wanted, and I’d make it for her—a simple but still-special tradition that your family may partake in too. Grace picked French bread pizza.

“Yes!” Anna (who had been eavesdropping) exclaimed.

We all like pizza. And the French bread recipe I make (found at the bottom of this page, compliments of Gina Homolka’s wonderful “Skinnytaste Cookbook”) is fast, easy and delicious. Win-win-win.

The next evening, Stanton, the girls and I gathered outside. One of my favorite parts of our home is the red-brick patio in the backyard. We pulled some mismatched chairs around the table there. Then we dug into Grace’s birthday dinner of French bread pizza, salad and blueberries from a local farm. It was a picture-perfect summer evening (and I did take a picture), served up on paper plates.

We don’t need to break out the fine china for family traditions, although it can be lovely and extra celebratory to. What matters most, at least for our family traditions and maybe yours too, is that we’re all together. The home team.

Keeping things simple (sometimes, or all the time) is OK. Paper plates can cut it.

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As Stanton and I are getting older, we’re rediscovering the beauty in keeping things simple. We’ve always been T-shirt-and-jeans-type people. Lately, though, we appreciate more than ever simply being together, being with our children. We don’t need to drive to Vermont, say, to take a scenic walk. We can just as contentedly walk a nature trail in our neighborhood. As long as we’re together. As long as we’re healthy.

I’m also relearning the importance of saying no—to invitations to gatherings or “opportunities” to volunteer that simply don’t work well now with our family’s schedule. Instinctively, I want to say yes to people, to experiences, to invitations of all kinds. But there are times when saying no makes sense for the family as a whole.

It can be healthy to say no, just as it can be helpful to break out the paper plates.

As long as we’re together. As long as we’re healthy.

Both Stanton’s parents and mine came to visit with us this summer. I love preparing food for our moms and dads. They have all done so much for Stanton and me, as well as our children, and I get a lot of joy from feeding them, taking care of them in this small but sustaining way.

Our parents appreciate my cooking for them, although they say (especially my mom) they don’t want me going to the trouble. I insist it’s no trouble, and they insist we at least use paper plates. Deal.

Paper plates signify different things. A full dishwasher, and no other clean dinnerware. A fuller house than usual, and a call to simplify the cleanup logistics later.

If you give a child a paper plate, they may not see something to hold food at all, but instead, the steering wheel to an imaginary car. Environmental scientists, meanwhile, may encourage an eco-friendly alternative (palm leaf for that pizza, anyone?).

However we all dig in to our family traditions, whatever they may be and wherever they happen…I wish all the folks gathered together (family, and those who are like family)—I wish them joy, and inside jokes. Picture-perfect moments, and a group hug (or two).

…I wish them joy, and inside jokes.

In seven years, I haven’t been a picture-perfect parent. I’ve been selfish. I’ve made mistakes. Certainly, I’ve let my girls watch “Captain Underpants” one too many times so that I could finish some writing work (or, let me be completely honest, eat alone in the kitchen—heaven!). Just yesterday, we rolled out of Hannaford with a family-size box of Lucky Charms peeking out of one of the bags, alongside two containers of store-prepared fried chicken tenders (#dinnerthatnight). Just off the top of my head, there are a lot of things (more vegetables, less TV, not so many raised voices) I could be doing better as a parent.

So I was sitting in the backyard with my family, eating Grace’s French bread pizza on paper plates. Grace helped herself to seconds; Anna made herself comfortable on Stanton’s lap. I was sitting in the backyard with my family, and I thought, “This feels good. I am lucky for this.”

Undeservedly lucky.

Our backyard moment didn’t resemble a Williams-Sonoma window display. There was no Tuscan-inspired tablescape, or monogrammed napkins, but no matter. There was love, and comfort, and thanksgiving.

Grace asked how we picked her name. Of all the names in the world, she wondered, how did we decide on hers? Such a simple name.

“Grace means gift,” I told her. “And that’s how Dad and I thought of you, and still think of you. We were so happy to have you.”

“And so happy to have me too, right, Mom?” (Anna is always listening.)

Then I told both girls that the name Anna actually means grace, which Stanton and I didn’t know, originally. We thought it was, simply, a beautiful nickname based on both our grandmothers’ names (Angelina and Nancy).

“My name is really Grace?” Anna squinted at me. “Huh?”

Sometimes, it really is best to keep things simple, and/or stop while you’re ahead. I held up my hands. “Time to sing ‘Happy Birthday.'”

Anna said she wanted to blow out a candle too. Stanton reminded her it wasn’t her birthday.

Grace shook her head. “It’s OK, Dad. Anna can have a candle.”

Traditions can be what we make them, right?

“Like all magnificent things, it’s very simple.” -Natalie Babbitt, “Tuck Everlasting”

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

When a Picture Falls Out of a Book

One corner of my kitchen countertop is a mess, always. Stuff just accumulates there.

My daughters’ ponytail holders. My Us Weekly magazines (I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit, I’ve been a subscriber, off and on, for years). Stanton’s various electronic gadgets. Pens, batteries, coupons, Shopkins, the occasional card. Lots…of…stuff.

The other day, I tried to clean up some of the stuff. Scoop the ponytail holders into a drawer. Recycle the magazines. Then I picked up an overstuffed file folder and a coming-unbound book—“Chocolatina” by Erik Kraft, one of the girls’ favorites—and a picture fluttered out of the jumble of paper and pages.

This picture:

When a Picture Falls Out

This picture shows my three siblings and me with our mom and her parents, our Poppy and Grandma. I’m the cute one. Just kidding, friends. 😉 I’m the one wearing the orange shirt.

My brother Josh is making bunny ears on my head. My other brother, Jared (in the striped shirt), would grow up to become the cute one. My sister Jenna is resting her head on the table.

I’m not sure whose birthday we’re celebrating here. If one of them is reading this, maybe they’ll help me out. (Hint, hint…)

I emailed this picture to my family, along with some old friends who have been around us Minetolas so long, and sat at that kitchen table with us so much, that they, too, know all the characters in this story.

Jared replied all: “photo cred: John Minetola?” That would be my dad, and I replied that yes, I thought so. Otherwise, he would have been in the picture.

This was before the selfie stick era, you know.

When this picture fell out of that book, I wasn’t expecting it. But instantly, after I picked it up, I smiled.

I smiled because it was a happy memory. Not a perfect memory—whose birthday cake was that?—but a happy one, because we were all there together. And I’m grateful that we still do gather around that table, many years later, for dinners and rounds of Uno and other normal, nothing-special moments that actually are special in their togetherness.

Poppy, of course, has since passed way, five years ago now. I miss him, but I know he’s in a good place.

I do wish he could have been here to have met Anna. I know he would have loved everything about her—every little thing, from her dimples to the mischievous twinkle in her eye, which is exactly like his.

Poppy did have a chance to meet Grace, about a year and a half before he died. I will always remember the way he leaned over to her—an old man with glasses, looking with big love at my baby—and said, “I hope you live to be 90.” Grace looked back, and I like to think she understood what he said.

Sometimes, our best pictures are the ones we don’t take. But our memories, strong and enduring, of times that touched our hearts and stay with us forever.

“I hope you live to be 90.”

In her book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” Marie Kondo writes that it can be difficult to organize pictures. Not only do we file them into photo albums, but we also stick them into books as bookmarks, or magnet them to the refrigerator, or pull them out of our photo albums to send to loved ones. Our pictures…end up…everywhere.

Have you ever opened a book, or knocked a day planner to the floor, and a picture or other memento fell out, rousing a memory?

What did you remember, friends?

Reflecting on a past moment, we might slip on our rose-colored glasses. We might romanticize a time, long gone, that we struggled through in real time, years ago.

I’ve had my moments with rose-colored glasses, and romanticism too. I’ve had my moments, friends.

People aren’t perfect. We aren’t perfect. Life is beautiful, and it’s also humbling.

Life is both/and; shades of gray, not black and white.

Our pictures…end up…everywhere.

Poppy loved nature. The older I get, the more I love and seek it out too.

Last week, my parents were in town for the girls’ winter break. One morning, I brought my dad and Grace to Five Rivers, a nearby nature park. We spent some time bird-watching at the visitor center, using binoculars to look out the expansive windows. We spotted many eastern bluebirds, and even an opossum.

“Poppy would have loved this,” my dad said.

I agreed.

“The best thing about a picture,” Andy Warhol said, “is that it never changes, even when the people in it do.” I loved seeing Poppy again in the picture that fell out of the book. I so appreciated remembering him, too, when I was bird-watching with my dad and my daughter.

Years from now, I wonder if my daughters will stumble upon an old picture, or frayed certificate of participation that I saved—a memento of some kind. So much of our life is digitized now, but we still keep hard copies of this and that here and there.

I wonder what Grace and Anna might find. I wonder what they’ll remember.

I hope they’ll skim over the imperfect parts. The persistent morning rush and end-of-day crankiness. My forgetting Anna’s teddy bear on “Bring Your Teddy Bear to Preschool Day” (that happened yesterday), Stanton’s coming home later than he’d said (two nights ago).

I hope they’ll skim over those parts, and remember that we loved them. At the very least, that we tried.

That is, after all, what families do: Love. Work. Play. Be there for one another. Try.

This quote made me laugh, so I’ll end with it, for your enjoyment too: “My whole family is lactose intolerant, and when we take pictures, we can’t say, ‘Cheese.’” –Jay London

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