The rituals of morning bread-baking, Shabbat dinners and the U.S. Army's nightly "Taps" were among the many traditions discussed as members of Palo Alto-based "Life Stories" classes gathered in late November to examine the "role of ritual" in their lives.
Students were asked to share memories, both positive and negative, of rituals from their childhoods as well as traditions they've carried on, tweaked, initiated or discarded as adults.
While some reflected on holiday or religious traditions, others chose secular rituals to describe to fellow participants in "Life Stories" classes offered at Avenidas and at Grace Lutheran Church. Palo Alto resident Sheila Dunec has been teaching the classes, which meet weekly, since the late 1990s.
Retired research chemist Bill Lee evoked the sound of a U.S. Army bugler playing "Taps" as he recalled his three months as a 20-year-old G.I. in basic training in 1943 at Camp Sibert, Alabama, home of the U.S. Army Chemical Warfare Service.
Lee said he found comfort in the sound of "Taps" each evening, knowing that "many generations have listened to those bugle notes as they and I have considered life and tried to find its meaning. ... Would I be able to face combat and conquer my fears?
"Would the war ever end? Would I ever return home? Would I ever see my siblings and parents and girlfriend again?"
Lee concluded his reading with the lyrics from "Taps": "Day is done, Gone the sun, from the lakes, from the hills, from the sky ..." Even now at 91, he said, he thinks of "Taps," and "I still use the late evening hours to summarize my days."
In an essay read by her daughter Winnie Doty, 91-year-old Helen Lamons of Palo Alto offered a detailed recounting of the morning kitchen rituals of her mother, a farm wife who baked bread every other day for her family, which included 12 children.
Lamons' mother maintained her own yeast starter, a tradition Lamons has not continued. However, "Thanks to Mama, I've enjoyed baking bread using Fleischmann's yeast instead," she wrote.
Rotem Pearlson of Palo Alto recalled the Shabbat dinners on the Israeli kibbutz of her childhood, a weekly occasion for which families dressed up, and white tablecloths transformed the community's self-serve cafeteria into a sit-down-dinner venue for 500. Families took turns leading the ceremony, practicing their readings in advance.
"We loved the singing parts," Pearlson said. "There was a guitar player, and we'd use our silverware to tap on the glasses while we were singing."
She recalled the adults passed "large metal bowls with steaming chicken soup" followed by the rest of the meal: roast chicken and potatoes, cooked vegetables and "a few fancy salads such as beet and cole slaw.
"For us kids, by the time we finished the soup we had no more space for the rest of dinner so we went outside to play while the adults continued with their dinners. ... It meant we could play longer.
"Until this day in my house we have every Friday night a Shabbat dinner with roast chicken, roast potatoes not so much the chicken soup with white tablecloth, candles, challah and the blessing," Pearlson said.
Palo Alto resident Ann Kay recalled going to her grandmother's house as a child for Sunday dinner with extended family. "There was a long break after grandmother died but now my son Jeff has picked up the tradition, making dinner almost every Sunday with his daughter Ana as an apprentice," Kay said.
Kay also recalled her Christmas Eve tradition of serving vegetable soup, which later changed to a cracked crab after an aunt began participating and introduced it. The aunt died in 1980.
"I think the real value of having the same dinner every year is it feels like it includes those who aren't with us, and we talk about them and it contributes to the ongoing unity of our family," she said.
Mary Taylor of Palo Alto passed around tiny objects a Labradoodle puppy, ice skates, a snare drum, a hedgehog all handmade. Each object represents something in Taylor's life, she explained, and belongs to the latest of many advent calendars she has crafted, this one for herself.
Portola Valley resident Margot van Vuurden described celebrating the Dec. 5 feast of St. Nicholas of her Dutch childhood, when she would leave her shoe at the bottom of the chimney and a mug of water for St. Nicholas' horse. "Without fail (the next morning) the mug would be empty, and there would be a chocolate letter "M" in my shoe or sweets or other gifts," said van Vuurden, who continues to give chocolate letters to her grandchildren on the holiday.
Palo Alto resident Sandy Peters described the evolution of her annual "Gramma Camp" complete with handwritten applications and T-shirts that began when one of her children became a single parent and needed baby-sitting help over spring break. "What started out as a fun thing for me has become an important part of our children and grandchildren's lives," she said. "I always incorporate new adventures, which are necessary as they grow older."
Debbie Rosenberg shared the origins of her family's tradition of visiting Hanalei, Hawaii, each year. The year 1983 "was the year of my epiphany when I realized that life is short, and we should start on the bucket list," she said.
Rosenberg, a hospital social worker, had met with the wife of a newly retired man who was confronting a sudden, life-threatening diagnosis. "That struck me and I went home and said to Nate, 'Let's take the kids to Hawaii.'"
She has carried on the tradition, alone or with friends, even after the 2009 death of her husband Nate Rosenberg, who was a teacher at Cubberley High School and, following the 1979 closure of that school, Palo Alto High School.
Palo Alto resident Marilee Anderson described her 20-year tradition of an annual holiday-season reunion with eight sorority sisters, who first met one another as college freshmen in 1956.
"It seems that we seek reunions of friendships more as we grow older," Anderson wrote. "Maybe it's to declare that we're still here, we're alive, and to touch once again those earlier years of our youth. With old friends you don't have to explain yourself, who you are, what you've done they know all of that."
Jim Wong told of the yearly rituals on the Palo Alto cul-de-sac where he's lived for more than 50 years, including the block party that began in 1964 and has continued through three or more generations of young children and a huge ranges of nationalities. "Getting together with family and friends is the best thing going," Wong said.
"Life Stories" classes reconvene in January. For more information call Dunec at 650-565-8087.