Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Lighthouse: Establishing Traditions

I am big on creating family traditions. 

As you probably already know, I love making memories with my family, but there seems to be an added value to a yearly tradition. As I have grown older, these annual milestone memories have become more and more nostalgic. And now I find my children enjoying them too.

“Are we going to go up in the lighthouse?” Sawyer asked, as we crossed the narrow bridge onto Hunting Island.

“Of course we are,” JulieAnna answered, “We have to… because we always have.”

“Well, I didn’t know,” Sawyer replied as he rolled his eyes dramatically.

I was quiet, as I soaked in the tropical beauty of the island. The miles of low country marsh had been suddenly interrupted by the island of densely covered palmetto trees and century-old oaks. Spanish moss swayed like pirates' beards above our heads. As many times as we have been to the island, I still sensed a feeling of wonder. The beauty is breath-taking. Patience cut off the air conditioner, and we rolled down the windows.

We all inhaled deeply.

You could almost taste the salt of the Atlantic in the air, as an ocean breeze blew past my face and down my back. As we pulled into the entrance of the campground a wave of memories rushed over my heart. I saw the General Store where I use to walk with JulieAnna as a toddler to get ice cream. The smell of campfires and grills brought to mind the countless stories and meals we had shared as a family in the past. 

“I couldn’t imagine not coming here,” Patience said.

She too looked as if her heart had been captured by the ghosts of all the memories we had made in this special place.

“Dad…” JulieAnna interrupted, “We are going to go up the lighthouse, right?”

“Of course,” I replied, “It’s a tradition. We have to.”

“I told you, Sawyer,” she said in satisfaction.

In the span of JulieAnna’s ten years of living, there has only been one summer we were not able to go to Hunting Island. She was too young to remember, so as far as she can recall, this magical little gem of a place has always been there. Taking away Hunting Island from Memorial Day would be as absurd as eating pizza on Thanksgiving. It is part of what we do.

For years though I did not appreciate it. I have always loved Hunting Island, but I am the type that loves to see new places. Early on in our marriage I told Patience that I never wanted to be one of those people that go to the same place every year. And for the past few years I have begrudgingly caved into returning to the same beach spot, only because our budget could afford nothing else. 

But this year seemed different. Maybe it was the excitement of getting to bring our new son, Wesley, to the ocean for the first time. Maybe it was the fact that JulieAnna and Sawyer were so excited to return. Or maybe I was just ready for a break. Whatever the reason, I felt the excitement and joy rekindled in my heart. And as we weaved through the trees alongside the ocean, my heart was full. 

I have mentioned before how hard it is for me to sit still, but I had determined within myself that I was going to unplug and slow down. I left my phone in the car for the majority of the trip, and even decided not to try and read a collection of books this year. Instead, I was going to try to thoroughly enjoy my family, and not feel like I had to accomplish anything. 

We spent most of our week on the beach. Even though it was Memorial Day, the ocean front was sparse with people. Wesley was very intimidated by the ocean. Being visually impaired, we have learned that it takes him longer than most kids to warm up to new things. I think this is mostly because he is processing what it is and if it is safe. The first day he would barely step into the tide. The next day we noticed him playing in the inches of water that washed up unannounced around him. By day three he was all in. It was wonderful seeing him experience this new world with his brother and sister beside him. 

We didn’t do much else. We ate together at the picnic table. The kids rode their bikes every free moment we were at the campground. For Mom’s birthday we did drive into the quaint town of Beaufort, SC for ice cream and lunch. (In that order!) At night JulieAnna transformed our ordinary fireside s’mores into a concoction of endless options. We had went to the store and bought every candy you could imagine to squish between graham crackers with a marshmallow. Sawyer spent most of his time building sand castles and enjoying the new-found freedom of riding his bike around the loop with his sister.

Unplugged and undistracted, I felt like I was able to enjoy my wife and kids all the more. I was trying to find ways to enrich my time with each of them. I was able to take a nighttime stroll on the beach with Patience. Hand in hand we meandered the shore in the darkness, and stood in awe of the night sky. As for my kids, I came up with a fun little idea to get some one-on-one time with them as well. I decided I would wake up really early, sneak into the camper where they were sleeping, and wake them up. From there we would sneak off for a special breakfast together. The second morning there I took JulieAnna. The following morning I took Sawyer. It was a wonderfully special time with each of them, as we talked about life, school, summer, and Pokémon. It will definitely be a new addition to our wonderfully rich tradition.

On the drive back home, Patience had nodded off in the passenger seat, and I found myself deep in thought. There was a sadness in my soul. I hated leaving such a special place. Which made me wonder what made it so special. I know the environment is beautiful, but it was not the beach or the palmettos that I was missing. It was the memories. The laughter around the campfire, and the talks over dinner. It was the digging in the sand with my kids, and throwing Frisbee with Dad. It was all the little traditions that have become so special to me. The seemingly minute moments that make my heart overflow with joy.

I know that it will not always be like this. Not all traditions last. Kids grow up. Plans change. People go different directions. I understand that. Maybe that’s why it was so special this year. Because for that small sliver of time my children and wife and parents were all by my side. And I am old enough to know I am never guaranteed that again.

A tradition doesn’t have to be an expensive trip to a resort hotel. You really do not have to go anywhere. A tradition starts with the people you love making a memory together, and then returning to share that memory again in the future. There are not many stronger feelings than that of nostalgia. So sit down with your spouse and map out an adventure for this summer. Take the family somewhere you’ve never been and start a new tradition together. Or maybe you can do like me and return to a place you have been before in the past and fall in love with it all over again.

Oh, and don’t worry, we did climb up to the top of the lighthouse. That was a nonnegotiable. 

So I paid my two dollars gladly this year. And I marched up all 167 steps of the Hunting Island lighthouse with Dad, JulieAnna, and Sawyer. At the top you can see 40 miles out into the blue of the Atlantic Ocean. I put my arms around my kids.

”Well, we did it,” I exclaimed.

“Of course we did,” JulieAnna said with a smile.

So much has changed in the years we have been going up that lighthouse. Yet there it stood. No different than it was the year I carried JulieAnna to the top in my arms. I guess that’s what makes it so special, to have a constant, in an ever-changing world. A place you can return to that doesn’t change. A place you can relive all the memories of the times before. 

Here's a few more of my favorite shot's from of trip:

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