I’m six years old, and my family and I are driving home from an evening advent service. Baby Michael is asleep. Matthew, at a rambunctious four years, is not. For a tired family in the thick of the holiday season, the shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but my parents know the importance of a detour.
“Let’s visit the fairy land,” my father says, and turns on a side street a few blocks from our house.
The block glows with thousands of bulbous multicolored lights, strung each year by a group of neighbors in the street’s tall California pines. Dad slows the car, and Mom starts singing. We join her: “What a beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight.” And it’s true.
In the life of a family, we might remember holiday activities like opening presents or lighting candles. Those times are memorable, but it’s often the “in-between” traditions that really stick with you. You know the stuff: when Dad plays the same Buena Vista Social Club record every Sunday morning, or when everyone holds their breath as the car moves through a tunnel. My mother calls these playful moments “the wings,” from a Theodosia Garrison poem her mother read to her as a child. “Seeing them,” the poem goes, “is what hastens them away.” Brief and sweet, the wings help map a child’s sense of attachment to people and places.
I’m grateful to work in a museum where I witness the wings everyday. In Cafe Sodade, a grandmother laughs when a four-year-old girl serves her “spaghetti with ice cream– today’s special.” A father and his six-year-old son join Museum staff members on a Friday night to help sing the goodnight song over the public address system. My neighbors Yasmin and Daniel and their six daughters last week brought a family dancing tradition from the living room to the dance floor, where Yasmin spontaneously battled Dya, the oldest, at Kids Jam. Playful and unplanned, silly or sweet: these are the wings.
As an adult caring for children in a busy season, you may find that everyday stresses and extraordinary circumstances can derail this ordinary magic. Looking back on my family’s trip to fairy land, I realize that my parents must have been worn out with worry for my grandma, who was battling cancer. On that night, it would have been seemingly easier to drive straight home and sleep, but taking the road not taken can refresh and restore. I’m sure you have examples of the wings in your own life with the kids in your life (and please feel free to share them here).
As we move into the new year, I’m looking forward to seeing the wings at “Happy Noon Year” at the Museum, where families will join together to count down to noon: like a practice session for the day the kids will actually be awake at midnight. Just before 12, staff parent educator Beth Fredericks will turn to the crowd and say, “Here comes the best part: at 12, you get to hug and kiss and tell your family you love them.” As bubbles rain down and we all sing Auld Lang Syne, families will do just that: they will circle together and, for a brief moment, be the family they want to be. And I will hear my mother’s voice in my head, and smile as I think: “These are the wings.”