Wednesday, April 8, 2009

On Tradition (warning: long post)

I love a good tradition. I find great peace in knowing that no matter what else changes in my life, there is something I can count on to remain constant through the years. It helps me mark time, reflect on my past and shape the future. It ensures a real-life, non-electronic connection in a world that now relates largely via facebook, twitter, and email. While those are fabulous tools, and I use them, they're no substitute for the real thing.

My favorite tradition comes this weekend. Every year for the past 85 or so--rain, shine, or snow--my Dad's side of the family has gathered on Easter Sunday. Not for brunch. Not for dinner. No fancy Easter dresses. This is not your average Easter tradition. It goes something like this:

Sometime around noon, after attending various Easter services we all converge on the home of one of my cousins, several miles outside an already remote town in far northern California. We number around 80-100 people most years, ranging in age from newborn to 90. I travel four hours to be there; others travel twice that. While waiting for everyone to arrive, baseballs and Frisbees are tossed; others pass around new babies or give hugs to a great-aunt or -uncle. Eventually, we head for the food.

Ah, the food. Each family brings a main dish plus a salad or dessert. There are at least a dozen iterations of fried chicken, plus lasagnas, baked beans, green salads, bean salads, brownies, deviled eggs, cakes, pies, cookies... This is not a day for counting calories or fat content. You won't find a nutritional label for miles in any direction.

The food line snakes through the house, out the door and around the yard as everyone fills a plate and finds a place on the lawn to sit and catch up with someone they haven't seen for a year or more. In addition to our roles as parents, children, brothers and sisters, we are cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandchildren. We are second cousins, first cousins-once-removed, and other relationships we've yet to figure out.

Oh yes, the eggs. Usually about 70-80 dozen of them, for the hunt. Each family brings one or two dozen depending upon the size of their crew. One of my older cousins is currently responsible for creating the Jackpot Egg...the holy grail of the hunt...elusive to me for the past 45 years. Judging from the way we all talk about this egg, you'd think the prize for finding it must be an all-expense-paid trip to Hawaii.'s a bag of chocolates and bragging rights until next year.

Being selected as a hider is a big honor, usually bestowed on four or five of the uncles and older cousins who are most immune to bribery from those wanting the jackpot egg. The hiders gather up the dozens of cartons and head for the hills a mile or so from the picnic. They have about an hour to hide nearly 1,000 eggs before the rest of us arrive.

Easter Egg Hill is divided into two sections, separated by an irrigation ditch. To the east is gently sloping pasture, set aside for the kids aged 8 and under. There, eggs are resting on tufts of new grass, easily visible to the 2'- and 3'-tall set. West of the ditch is for the big kids aged 90. It's a hill covered with chaparral, wild celery (icknish), oak and ponderosa pine trees. On this side, the eggs are harder to spot: tucked into the bushes and plants, down squirrel holes, in the crook of a tree branch.

The little ones go first, so everyone can watch them run aimlessly over the pasture, tripping over their baskets and walking directly over top of several eggs.
Then, it's a sight to behold when the starter turns toward the hill and yells "3...2...1...go!", and 60 adult bodies launch themselves across the ditch and up the hill, risking twisted ankles and scraped knees.
The race is on for the prizes that will be awarded to Finder of the Most Eggs and Finder of the Jackpot Egg. It's a tough crowd and competition is fierce. As I mentioned earlier (and I'm not bitter...really...), I've yet to find the jackpot egg. My totals are always respectable, but never prize-winning. No matter how I change my route up the hill and try new strategies each year, my totals always seem to be around 13 eggs and not one of them bears the word 'JACKPOT'.

So, accepting that another year will pass with me in the middle of the pack, I turn to my personal tradition. Once I've found the majority of my eggs, I wander the hill, breathing the fresh air, listening to the birds, and taking in the new spring growth around me.
I remember my dad and aunts and uncles who have wandered this hill before me...the way they made their families top priority through their actions, words and traditions. I say a silent "thank you" for them having been such strong, positive influences on my life. I miss them, and I recommit to paying forward the gifts they gave me.

Within an hour, we're all gathered back together, reporting our totals to the counter and waiting for the prizes to be awarded. Invariably, we learn there are still 97 eggs out there somewhere. We agree to leave them for the squirrels, deer, and other residents of the Hill and we all head home, another Easter complete and a week of deviled eggs on the horizon.

In our Monday-to-Friday lives, we are business owners, lawyers, veterinarians, engineers, ranchers, artists, judges, homemakers, teachers, etc. But on this day we're just Bray kids, doing what we've done every Easter for as long as we can remember, because the generations before us did it, and we've learned from them the importance of continuity. And we know we can count on each other to show up. And isn't that really what life's about? Learning from the old and teaching the young. Being present for those who matter. Showing up.

I think so. It's tradition.

Happy Easter.


  1. What a beautiful post Polly, and such a great tradition. I'm rooting for you to find that jackpot egg this year!

    Happy Easter, Barb

  2. What a wonderful story!! We too used to have the jackpot egg - "The Golden Egg"