When I started thinking about this topic, I was having a hard time coming up with a tradition that felt like a tradition. I was focused more on the idea of holidays or things like that, things you do as a family. Except, having been around a while, the idea of “family” has been in flux for a good portion of my life. I left my folks’ house (after a few false starts) for Los Angeles when I was 20 and didn’t return to the same city as them for another 16 years. In between, I had a live-in girlfriend and a wife, and I don’t really remember many traditions there.
But then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that a tradition didn’t necessarily mean something you do at the same time everyone else does them. It could be something you all do together or a specific ritual that happens on a regular basis or is triggered by certain events (like a holiday or a birthday*) but it could also just be something you do for each other, also triggered by certain events.
This made me think of “Surprise Bags.”
The idea of a Surprise Bag is it’s something you get when you go on a trip. I wrote about them before, thinking they originated with my grandfather’s second wife, but I’ve since been told it was my folks who actually came up with the idea. When they started, they were simply paper lunch bags filled with treats to keep us kids occupied on trips. From the ages of 5-7 (ish), we lived in Albuquerque, NM and then we moved to Las Vegas. Since Mom’s family was in Los Angeles and Dad’s was in Chicago, we tended to go for trips to visit them, often by car or train, which meant there was a lot of downtime for the little ones. Inside the Surprise Bags were not only candies and treats, but also maybe a stuffed animal and a toy or game.
The key here was that you didn’t get it until you were on the trip itself. This wasn’t a night before kind of thing at all. This was a surprise that came after the last call for toilets and gas stops, once you were truly underway.
Of course, like all things like this when you’re a kid, it gradually faded away. You get older and it just doesn’t seem that important anymore and before you know it, it has slipped away into the darkness of the past, remembered only through a nostalgic lens.
But then, something happened.
I honestly don’t remember how or why or who started it (if someone from my family does, I hope they’ll let me know), but Faye and I started making Surprise Bags for each other. These were more grown-up ones, designed for whole vacations rather than just the transport legs of the trip. There was still candy and treats and toys and games, but there was also longer form entertainments like books and videos, the idea, though, was the same.
This was a tradition I’ve carried with me. Through all iterations of family, this is my tradition, something I do. Sometimes it’s been reciprocated and sometimes not, but I don’t care either way. I like doing Surprise Bags. I’ve done them for Rasa and even though she didn’t quite understand it, I’ve even done them for Monki.
That said, though, now that she’s getting older, they absolutely will become part of our family traditions with her whenever we travel. I actually had one all set for our family birthday trip this past summer…and then promptly forgot it. It was okay, and everything worked out, but I’ll have to remember for the next time we travel someplace for a real vacation. Here, nothing is that far away so it’s okay if we don’t have much to do in the car, we’re there before you know it.
We’ve already started a few new ones, like the jar for noting events throughout the year and then reading through them on New Year’s Eve to remember the year we had and during the pandemic we started Movie Sundays where we all sit as a family, bundled up on the couch, pop some popcorn and watch films. I have a good feeling we’ll see a few more come together as time goes on.
* In fact, Birthdays were another family tradition, one where whoever’s birthday it was got to pick the restaurant (I always picked Macayo) for the evening meal and then it was their choice as well for a movie or particular outing.