Fiddling on a roof and in a cemetery


Fiddler on the Roof!

“Why do we stay up there if it is so dangerous? I don’t know.  How do we keep our balance?  That I can tell you in one word – TRADITION!”  Tevye sang that delightful song that gave Fiddler on the Roof on the stage and on the silver screen its heart; Tevye and his family clung to their traditions to give meaning to their lives and to help them live through life’s challenges.   In some way or another we all do the same, cling to traditions for meaning.  Christmas, Easter, birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day and the rest of the days when we pause in our hectic lives to honor some tradition.   In my family the most important of those traditions is Memorial Day.

We gather every year on a hillside in Dayton, Nevada to clean graves, put flowers on them, tell stories about our dead and each other, catch lizards and play the other games we always play in that cemetery;  a cemetery on a hillside where my mother’s family has played and cried since 1867.   That was a very long time ago, when the Alh family first came to Dayton; not long after they came the mother and the youngest daughter died within months of each other and were buried on that hillside.  Ever since then the remaining family members and their descendants have been climbing up that hill to pay tribute to those who have died and been buried there; there are lots of us, some years nearly 50 people.  A long time, a lot of people? That is a matter of perspective.

The Yellow Emperor as depicted in a tomb from the mid second century AD. The inscription reads: “The Yellow Emperor created and changed a great many things; he invented weapons and the wells and fields system; he devised upper and lower garments, and established palaces and houses.” Wikipedia

This week an estimate 520 million Chinese have been visiting the graves of their ancestors, telling stories, leaving flowers and honoring their traditions.  A half a billion people is a pretty big number – but there is one more number from the Chinese tradition that is even more impressive to me.  Besides honoring their direct ancestors the Chinese also honor the Yellow Emperor; a legendary figure of Chinese history.  The legend originates nearly 5,000 years ago, but it tells of a time 7,000 to 10,000 years ago – the beginnings of agriculture and permanent communities in China.  One hundred and fifty years ago, Elizabeth Alh and her surviving children provided my grandmother, my mother and her children, her grandchildren and great grandchildren with a narrative of our history, our identity.  My family’s traditions gives each of us a great deal – again like the people in Fiddler on the Roof, it tell us who we are, where we came from and what is expected of us.

Above all things, it is the one thing that we give our children that we know has true value, a value that does not fade or diminish with the trends and cycles of normal life.  I can testify from a person point of view that it is a very powerful sense of identity and place.  Regardless of where I have been in the world, I always knew where home was; it is that hillside and it is the center of the universe –  from that knowledge I could find my bearings.   I can not even imagine how powerful that feeling must be for the Chinese.  But I do know one thing about it, it is much easier to keep your balance if you have that kind of tradition.

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