Tradition … Dah, Dah, Dum

Traditions are the distilled wisdom and memory of culture. Watching them change can be unsettling.

In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, the main character Tevye sings a song about tradition. Tradition provides the lane markers and guard rails that keep life flowing smoothly for villagers in his village of Anatevka, in Tsarist Russia. To mix metaphors, tradition is both the anchor and glue that binds the villagers together.

A Few Small Traditional Treasures of Life

Traditional treasures of life often gain that status for good reasons. Silverware was a store of value, not only for the silver content but also for the hand craftmanship required to produce each individual fork, spoon, and knife. Similarly, table china was rare and expensive. The china cabinet not only stored these valuable items but also displayed them as a visible sign of the family wealth. When troubles threatened, wealth in the form of silverware and china was portable. The same held true for expensive jewelry.

Today, mass production has substantially replaced the expensive hand craftmanship from silverware and china, and we keep our financial wealth in banks, not in portable items of high value.

Passing on the Treasures

Recently my wife and I have had some significant encounters with these traditions. Devon and I had served as the primary caretakers for our parents, so we collected all the treasures of their lives when they passed away. Letters, certificates, silverware, china sets, books, silver tea sets, and so much more. We ended up as custodians of silverware and china from three generations. Quickly we shoved it into closets, up on high storage shelves in the garage, underneath stairwells, and even in a barn.

We don’t have a desire to collect these treasures, so we promised that we would clean up all this stuff one day. Years passed with no action. Finally that “one day” came when we sold the house. Our disposition process for all these treasures will no doubt be familiar to most readers, who have been on one side or the other of these conversations.

My wife took pictures of all the wonderful treasures, then got the kids on a conference call.

“Kids,” she announced, “we have four sets of china, not counting the special Christmas set and the Thanksgiving set. Eight place settings each, complete with bread plates, salad plates, butter dishes, big soup tureens, and gravy boats. Pick your favorite and we will ship the entire set to you. Which set do you want? You can take two!”

The response? Dead silence from the kids. Finally, our daughter spoke up.

“My apartment is pretty small, and I already have dishes,” she demurred.

Having no luck with the china, we switched the discussion to all the silver: silver trays, silver bowls, goblets, tea sets, water pitchers, ice buckets, and napkin rings. Perhaps the children might want some of these priceless objects?

Our daughter and her friend Cristian happened to be visiting his family for a holiday during this call. As fast as we could send a picture of a tea set, our daughter responded with a picture of a similar tea set, which Cristian’s mother was trying to give to him. When we offered a big silver tray Cristian’s mother pulled out one, even bigger and more ornate. But not a single item caught their interest. The kids did not want any silver from parents on either side, not even the expensive sets of dinner silverware.

We eventually found a 10 lb. bar of silver that my parents acquired years ago. Our daughter accepted it in memory of my mother. I guess portable wealth is still appreciated.

About the china cabinet, yes we did have one. And no, we did not even try to give it to the kids.

Some Treasures Find a Home

Thoroughly frustrated, we cast a wider net for folks who might appreciate and value these treasures. A distant cousin, also in our generation, gladly accepted one set of china and silverware. Of course, we paid for the shipping across the country.

With several workers in the house doing painting and repair work, we got to know Pedro, who walked from Guatemala to the US with his wife and two-year-old son. A true immigrant success story, Pedro has a green card and is working on full citizenship in the US. His son attends a local junior college and his two daughters are native US citizens. Pedro and his wife speak Spanish, English, and their native Mayan dialect. The children speak primarily English.

While we were taking yet more pictures of the china sets, Pedro came to me with a painting question. Looking at the homeless china, my wife saw an opportunity with Pedro.

“Would your wife like this china?” she asked Pedro.

“Maybe so,” he responded. “Let me send some pictures to her.”

So we set arranged a complete setting of the china, including salad plate, cup, and saucer. Pedro sent a picture to his wife.

“What is the extra little plate?” she asked. So we explained about the salad plate.

“Great,” she said. “We will have salad tonight.”

Somehow, it felt right to give a set of china to immigrants just starting out in their journey as American citizens.

We also offered the china cabinet to Pedro. His wife wanted it, but their place was already full of furniture. However, they found room for the the LCD flat panel TV we offered. He hung it on the wall that night and his kids immediately programmed it to play video games, then eventually tuned it into a Telemundo program for Pedro and his wife.

Large Animals are Going Extinct

In the past few years, we have encountered another cluster of traditions in decline. We participate in a local church and my wife is an active member of the local chapter of the American Association of University Women–AAUW. Both the church and the local AAUW chapter have been in a long-term decline, which Covid only accelerated.

These two institutions are only our personal examples of the long-term decline in local volunteer organizations, such as Lions’ Clubs, Elks, and Moose Clubs. Clear proof that large animals are going extinct. Participation in local volunteer organizations has been in decline for over 50 years, along with individual giving of time and money to charities.

What Comes Next?

Tevye, the main character in Fiddler on the Roof, has five daughters. A Jew deeply rooted and bound in tradition, Tevye struggles profoundly as each of his five daughters breaks with tradition to find a partner and a new life, often far from the shtetl of Anatevka. Eventually, he and the entire Jewish community are evicted from Anatevka in the ultimate metaphor of broken tradition. While Tevye survives and remains hopeful, life has changed.

Traditions are lagging indicators, repositories of historical value, wisdom, and stability. As culture changes, traditions change too, just much slower. What will supplant local churches and volunteer service organizations?

We see some signs of possible new community social and service structures in affinity groups developing in social networks, and weak glimmers of ad hoc volunteer groups appearing in response to events publicized on the net. Similarly, people respond to ad hoc appeals for funding through GoFundMe and other websites.

Will these new groups resemble the volunteer service organizations of the last century? Maybe a little. Will these new groups develop traditions that provide better, stronger bonds between and among us? I don’t know. I am hopeful.

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