The Russian novelist Tolstoy believed that the greatest gift we could give a person is a happy memory from childhood.
I’m fortunate to have numerous happy memories from childhood and the ones I most cherish are linked with my grandmother, “Nanny Prize.” From this vantage point in time I now realize what an unusual woman she was – which is a nice way to say she was something of an oddball!
For thirty-five years she was a prison guard on Riker’s Island, the largest prison in NYC. She retired her billy club at the age of seventy-two. To look at her, you’d have thought she sold cosmetics at Macy’s. She had been widowed in her early thirties and raised my father by herself. She had no friends. Her job was her life, but my brother, Peter, and I gave her life.
Throughout grammar school, Peter and I spent almost every weekend at her Bronx apartment – a place we dubbed “Freedom Land.” Unlike our mother, Prize let us have the run of her place, letting us do as we pleased. And so Peter and I turned each room into a magical setting. Before there was Hogwarts, there was my grandmother’s apartment!
The great gift Prize gave us – above all else – was the gift of setting our imaginations wild and grounding it all in ritual. In her home, there were no rules, no “shoulds,” just a sense of play – creative, imaginative, and anchoring.
How did she do this? Well, she had the entire apartment wall-to-wall carpeted in green shag so as to give the appearance of grass. She wanted us to imagine that we were on a farm or in the woods.
She saved the boxes her end tables came in and we propped them in the living room, creating a tree house. In an adjoining room, which probably should have been the dining room, she had a day-bed that was used as our pirate ship and a legless ironing board was the gangplank that poor Peter had to walk.
Every weekend, without fail, we ate pizza on Friday, steak on Saturday, and fried chicken on Sunday. We played checkers and Pokeno and watched the same TV shows weekend after weekend.
We loved our days at “Freedom Land.” With Prize as Oz, we created a safe world that nourished our imaginations and gave us order and meaning. That was ritual – not routine.
I now realize that the gift of those happy memories influenced everything I’ve done as a teacher and coach, uncle and godfather.
Here’s the thing: holidays can either sap our energy or renew us. It really all depends on our rituals. What do you do each year that creates happy memories?
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