Monday, May 5, 2008

Pass the Mayo

My mother has been going through "the change" for the last six years or so. Whenever she visits, we crank up the air conditioner and don our sweatshirts. We call her "The Flash." So it's no real surprise that once things get even a little warm outside, she's eager to open up the above-ground pool she lives in for five months out of the year. Rather than opening her pool on Memorial Day, or any random day, she looks to the skies to tell her when it is time for the season's first dip.

Because there's no point in taking off that pool cover until the last helicopter has fallen from the maples that surround her home. And when the time comes, it is truly a celebration. They labor to get the PH just right, spruce up the yard, and throw some meat on the grill. Family comes over and even though the water’s just a little too chilly for everyone who’s not suffering from hot flashes, it is an excellent day.

It is my mother’s own tradition. Her very own holiday. It commemorates the onset of summer, a happy time in my family full of weekend barbecues, splashing in the pool, warm skin, and lots of hugs. It is a celebration for our family, and has nothing to do with the pool and everything to do with us being together.

Today is Cinco de Mayo, and I’m here to tell you that it’s not a day celebrating Sister Margarita, the patron saint of sombreros. It is not Mexico’s Independence Day. (That’s in September.) In fact, the holiday celebrates a significant victory of Mexico against the French—and apparently most people in Mexico do not celebrate it. In the US, of course, some folks celebrate Mexican culture on this day, in the same way that we “celebrate the Irish” on St. Patrick’s day. In fact, in much the same way.

We get drunk. And we don’t actually learn anything about the culture of the people involved.

I’m not saying that everyone treats these holidays in this way. Of course not. And I’m not even necessarily telling you it’s “wrong.” But what can most people tell you about Cinco de Mayo? About St. Patrick? Not very much. What is significant about these days is that it is a time to celebrate. But why do we need these seemingly random days to do so? And why does it occur at such a superficial level?

What I am saying is, it’s easy to feel as though we lack cultural heritage. In those times, people tend to glom on to other traditions. Sometimes this is to educate ourselves about others. But most of the time, if you’re being truly honest, it’s not. You’re not going to learn about the people of Mexico slamming back store-mix margaritas at Chevy’s tonight. You’re just not.

I myself am the most plain white bread human being you might meet. There’s some interesting Russian Jews back there, but the genetic line is fairly…meh. But that doesn’t negate the fact that I have a culture—my family has a culture. We have funny traditions and sayings all our own. We break out the Yiddish even though no one in my family has spoken the language for 120 years. We have a distinct set of values and beliefs, mores and norms. And we have our own celebrations. Of our world, our family, and our culture.

Sure, we want to learn about the cultures and heritage of others in our world. Heck yeah! This makes our world richer, and our understanding of others around us greater.

But I also want to make sure that we have our own traditions, our own heritage, our own stories, and our own rich cultural fabric in our household. I want to celebrate the wonder that is our family, our community. We don’t have a day on the national calendar for this, but that’s probably just as well. Our culture happens every day anyway, regardless of the date on the wall. I just have to remember to celebrate it more.


Heather said...

I find that we have our own holidays too...and they're usually better than the "real" ones.

And my mom is always cold.

Kirsetin said...

I keep worrying that "cold" will be setting in too soon. And I love your description of your mom's pool party--it sounds like so much fun. What a great family tradition!

susiej said...

This was such a beautiful post... and so much history that is new to me. And you're right, we kind of take our own culture for granted.