There is a picture in my mind. It consistently forms this time of year as the days get shorter but mercifully cooler, past the hubbub of Halloween. The holidays, resplendent with hearth and home, are on the horizon.
This is an actual picture, a photo displayed in my grandmother’s house. It features my mother, age four or five, in a plaid green woolen coat with matching hat. But I know the picture in my head is probably inaccurate. It has blended other memories and photos: of my sisters, daughters, and nieces in the same coat and hat.
All the photos of this beautiful coat seem to have melded together to fix a single memory that returns to me each year when the air brings a chill.
My mother’s parents were neither rich nor poor, they were solidly working class. They knew the value of something well-made, something worth holding onto that could be passed on. So even though my mom would only get one or two winters’ wear from the coat, they bought that which would last, with good wool and excellent stitching. It has lasted. Between my mother’s sisters and my sisters and several granddaughters, I’ve lost count of how many little girls this coat has kept warm for nearly seventy years. It is an heirloom in the best sense because it is a useful one. Presently, it sits at my sister’s house awaiting the next generation.
I am fortunate that our home is filled with things that have lasted: an apothecary, a few well-crafted chairs, dishes both fine and every-day, books, quilts, lawyer drawers, and a coffee table made by my father from the hatch of a wooden ship. As I sit here writing, I wear a cashmere blazer given by my aunt to my grandfather, and then to me when he passed.
These memories of family and tradition cause me to reflect on Tradition itself. I’m reminded that Tradition, be it Holy, family, or Great, is not an artifact preserved under glass for us to gawk at. Tradition is the passing on of that which is worth passing on. It is received, cared for, loved, and responded to. The true end of memory is generative – to create and recreate. My coffee table was once part of a great, well-built ship. My father recognized the quality and saved it from a scrap heap. He made it into something new, beautiful, and useful. I’ve since refinished it and given it new legs.
Tradition is the brave work of the translator who labors to bring forward great works to new peoples in new places. Sometimes it fails miserably for lack of fidelity; but sometimes it generates a generational wave of love for the likes of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and innumerable Church Fathers.
This is what we engage in as Christian classical educators. The school is not a museum of dusty old things we just can’t bring ourselves to throw away. It is a way station where the precious cargo of the past is received. It is checked and moved into new cars on new trains. It is sent forth. By God’s grace, our students’ lives will be marked by receiving what is good, rejecting what is worthless, and recreating good in their families, churches, and communities.
At its best, Christian classical education is the shepherd of the Great Tradition, caring for it that it may multiply.
Autumn seems the perfect time to reflect on what we have received and how we are passing it on. I consider hopefully the blessing and responsibility of the Holy Tradition, the conversation I’ve been invited into and all that I’ve received, tangible and intangible, from my family.
My Pépère, who gave me the shirt off his back because I complimented it, abounded in hospitality and generosity. Gyn, his wife, never learned to drive (because what car would fit her fourteen children?) and in my memory always holds a child on her lap and a beaming smile.
Mim, my mother’s mother, was a small woman of incredible strength. She lost her husband before her eldest child finished high school, then worked while attending night school to provide for her four children. And the legacy of my Grandpa Roy, whom I never met, was passed on to me in smile and spirit, and the memories of my mother, aunts, and uncle.
My grandparents have all passed now. I suspect I’ll be a Pépère myself in the coming years. What have I passed to my children? What will I pass to my grandchildren? The answer, I hope, is all the good I have received from my grandparents – and from my parents: my father, whose steadfastness and self-sacrifice I’ve been in awe of for as long as I can remember; and my mother, from whom I’m certain I inherit my love for life, culture, color, flavor, and hospitality.
And just maybe, her green coat and hat.