Madelon Sprengnether

Minding Memory

Ceremonies: Do They Matter?

And why do we celebrate?

Posted Jun 01, 2017

Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain, free image
Source: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain, free image

It’s well past May Day, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, and we are heading into graduation season. Not to mention Father’s Day and the rush of June weddings. So many reasons to gather and to celebrate!

Leaving aside the commercial bonanza of such occasions, why do we throw ourselves so wholeheartedly into these events?

Here’s what I think. We need to come together around moments of significant change, e.g. graduating from high school or college, getting married, becoming a parent—not to mention the more sober/somber occasions of life, such as the remembrance of veterans lost in foreign wars, or the more personal ones, such as retirement, or the funeral or memorial service of a loved one.

In the former instances, we want to remind ourselves of the continuity of our lives in the midst of change—leaving home, becoming an independent adult, choosing a mate and a new family system, deciding to foster a new generation. In each case, we face the loss of the past as we have known it and an unscripted future, as full of danger as possibility.  We want to be carried safely across this perilous crossing into our new lives, knowing that we have not lost the ones that have sustained us this far.

I’ve made this kind of transition many times and am newly appreciative of how ceremonies (meaning gatherings of meaningful people) help us move away from familiar patterns of love, life, and behavior towards new ones that we cannot yet imagine.

I remember once asking my friends in graduate school what they thought of as their personal vision of felicity. I don’t now remember what made me ask such a personal question. One by one, they shared their memories of happiness from their childhoods. Mine was Thanksgiving, when my dad was still alive, and my immediate family (parents, grandparents, brothers, aunt, uncles and cousins) gathered with my dad’s business associates around a table to celebrate a secular holiday. The adults, in my recollection, were all jolly, attentive to us children and talkative over dinner, their tongues loosened no doubt by the pre-dinner cocktails they’d consumed.     

My point is not so much who we were as what we did. Together, family and non-family, we created a group celebration. This moment in time shaped my quest for happiness for years to come.

Sadly, I did not do so well at marriage, but I kept looking for ways to recreate this timeless memory. In the midst of the many disruptions in my adult life, this iconic moment became my personal gauge of success—not so much my jobs, promotions or worldly achievements as how well I could sustain my past by carrying it into the present through occasions of pure celebration.

I’ve been lucky to have many of these. Here’s a selection.

When my mother died in 1998, my ex-mother-in-law invited me to her home in Texas to visit with her and my daughter who was visiting at the same time. This one visit turned into an annual ritual and even into my participation in my ex-husband’s family reunion when his mother turned 90, just after my daughter’s wedding in England.

Her wedding was another moment when I felt the convergence of past and present through the participation of friends and family from disparate and widely separated moments in time: my ex-husband and his second wife and children, friends who knew us both in graduate school, some of whom had participated in our own wedding ceremony, and others who had known us and our daughter over time. I remember feeling euphoric.

Here is recent example. After 49 years as a teacher in higher education, I decided to retire. I was fortunate to have a close colleague who was retiring at the same time. Together, we helped our department plan a party for us, to which we invited current and former students, colleagues, staff members, family, and friends. We were both surprised at how many personal messages we received by those could not come and how many were actually able to attend. 

I was especially pleased that my daughter and two grandchildren could travel to Minnesota from New York to be there. My daughter had been born in my first year teaching and bore the brunt of my uncertainties, as a mother and as a classroom instructor. I wanted her to witness the span of my adult life and how far we had both come. I wanted my grandchildren (ages 10 and 12) to be there so they could see me as a woman who had led a life in the world in addition to being their very own “Gramma.” Once again, I felt that something about this party made my life (with all of its difficult and lurching changes) feel whole.

The party continued throughout the weekend, which was gloriously sunny and warm (a blessing in Minnesota in early May)! On Saturday, we went to Powderhorn Park—one we had not visited with the kids on previous visits. While strolling around its small lake, we came upon a rehearsal ceremony for the annual Powderhorn Park May Day parade—famous in the Twin Cities for its inclusiveness and for the participation of the In the Heart of the Beast Puppet theater, which designs and creates giant puppets for arts performances, locally and sometimes nationally.

Each year’s parade has a theme but it is also always a prelude to the “Tree of Life Ceremony,” in which four giant puppets representing the Prairie, Sky, River and Woods cross the lake to the opposite shore, where the Tree of Life sleeps, waiting to be awakened.

 In The Heart of the Beast, used with permission
Source: Credit: In The Heart of the Beast, used with permission

Returning the next day, we found booths surrounding the lake, offering information and fliers for saving the environment, supporting immigrant and human rights, celebrating the diversity of the Twin Cities’ population—along with colorful vendors offering food choices as diverse as the booths and brochures. We opted for corndogs (dipped in batter and eaten from a stick), tacos in a bag, and homemade ice cream.

There were people in beautiful and highly artistic costumes, with members of all ages and skin colors represented. There was music as well, from the drumbeats of the Mexican-American “Aztec” group, to the (tenderly young) folk singers we enjoyed while finishing our ice cream cones.

I hadn’t been to the Powderhorn Park May Day parade since my daughter was a 6-year-old child, when we huddled in our winter parkas under a biting wind and lightly falling snow.

I’d forgotten how magical it was—weather be damned—and how inclusive (of races, religious traditions, sources of national origin) from its inception in the mid-1970s. This, I felt, is the best of the place where I live and the best vision for the future that my life can offer.  

Flannery O’Connor, in her collection of short stories Everything that Rises Must Converge, offers a similar vision. In it, she breaks down personal, social and racial barriers between her characters and opens them to new and startling kinds of perception. I especially like her story “Revelation,” in which a rather self-righteous woman, who comprehends her life in terms of hierarchies of social, racial, and religious categories, has a vision of the people whom she thinks of as beneath her preceding her on the path of glory into heaven.

This is how I understand O’Connor’s story. Our lives embrace everyone we have ever known, and we are part of all that we have experienced. We should celebrate every occasion we have to acknowledge this awareness.

Heaven (if it exists) will be the best and most inclusive party of all!