Here we are in the post-holiday time, and I’m thinking about family rituals. My father’s side of the family had a habit of gathering on New Year’s Eve for an oyster soup supper followed by a rousing game of cards—Rook usually or sometimes Pitch, both of them bidding games. The competition could get fierce, and from time to time someone would lose their temper. It made for a fascinating study of human nature for this young boy who would one day become a writer.
What are some of your family rituals? You can define “family” however you’d like. Maybe you’d like to think about your biological family, or maybe you’d like to think about one of the families you’ve made along your life’s journey. What customs, habits, rituals do you have?
Ritual sometimes becomes the impetus for a story as is the case with “Sticks” by George Saunders, reprinted here, in its entirety:
Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he’d built out of metal pole in the yard. Super Bowl week the pole was dressed in a jersey and Rod’s helmet and Rod had to clear it with Dad if he wanted to take the helmet off. On the Fourth of July the pole was Uncle Sam, on Veteran’s Day a soldier, on Halloween a ghost. The pole was Dad’s only concession to glee. We were allowed a single Crayola from the box at a time. One Christmas Eve he shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. He hovered over us as we poured ketchup saying: good enough good enough good enough. Birthday parties consisted of cupcakes, no ice cream. The first time I brought a date over she said: what’s with your dad and that pole? and I sat there blinking.
We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic. He draped some kind of fur over it on Groundhog Day and lugged out a floodlight to ensure a shadow. When an earthquake struck Chile he lay the pole on its side and spray painted a rift in the earth. Mom died and he dressed the pole as Death and hung from the crossbar photos of Mom as a baby. We’d stop by and find odd talismans from his youth arranged around the base: army medals, theater tickets, old sweatshirts, tubes of Mom’s makeup. One autumn he painted the pole bright yellow. He covered it with cotton swabs that winter for warmth and provided offspring by hammering in six crossed sticks around the yard. He ran lengths of string between the pole and the sticks, and taped to the string letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding, all written in a frantic hand on index cards. He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? and then he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and the sticks and left them by the road on garbage day.
Notice the way Saunders uses details—the pole, the father’s shrieking at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice, the cupcakes at birthday parties—to represent what it was like growing up in that family. Notice, too, the way Saunders so gracefully moves across a stretch of time with the line, “We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us.” That step into adulthood shows the father’s legacy pitted against his diminishment and his desire for love and forgiveness, a desire that eventually gets discarded along with the pole itself after the father’s death. The details do all the work, and there’s a great sadness at the end of the story that a life has come to this.
So here’s your assignment. Using a family ritual, write a piece of flash fiction (500 words or fewer) that relies on the details to tell us the story of a life. Feel free to imitate the Saunders story if you’d like, or to modify this prompt in any way that makes sense to you. The objective is to write a very small story that becomes large through the careful consideration of details.