"Will we see an alligator this year?" asks 10-year-old Daniel as he, his older brother Mike, and my husband and I make the annual drive from the Fort Myers airport to our rented condo on Sanibel Island, Fla. Alligators thrive on Sanibel, but in our nine years of visits, we've seen only one up close.
We swing into the parking lot of the local grocery store. Jerry, a green Amazon parrot, greets me as always with a loud "Hello" from his outdoor perch. A fixture in this shopping area, he causes shouts of glee from children – and raised eyebrows from unsuspecting women as he whistles and says, "Hi, sweetie!"
Unlike our home in New York City, where stores are known to switch ownership with the seasons and neighborhood skylines can change between visits, Sanibel Island is reassuringly the same, except for a few downed trees and rebuilt homes following recent hurricanes. This sameness makes it possible for yearly visitors such as us to shift easily into a Sanibel state of mind and resume strings of conversations from where we left them the year before.
"How big was the alligator, Daniel?" my husband, Fred, asks yearly about a sighting that occurred three visits ago. My son's arms and smile stretch as wide as they can, his gestures mimicking last year's photographs in our family album.
When I first arrived on Sanibel, and my now 13-year-old was just 4, I didn't know that we would return annually. We were a newly formed family, still unsure of our course.
But I immediately sensed the place's significance to many of its visitors, as I met people who returned year after year. They had come on their honeymoons, later brought their children, and now were supervising grandchildren from beneath their beach umbrellas.
I, who had always embraced change, found this seasonal migration from the North to the same spot in the South, quaint.
Still, I tucked this thought away, as I sorted through how to combine Fred's and my very different backgrounds.
One evening in Sanibel, I watched a father playing with his children. "Jeffrey, run to the tree," he said, and the young boy trotted to a large palm.
"Susie, go touch the big rock," he cried, and off she went. I could tell by the children's faces that this was a game they knew well. While observing, I felt that I understood something about families and rituals, and how they remind us of who we are and where we're from.
My young family had few rituals at the time, just those that Fred and I had cobbled together. These occasionally deteriorated into a tug of war as we each tried to hang on to our pasts. "My mother never cooked soup on Thanksgiving," I said as we prepared our first holiday meal together, and then I demanded, "Why do we have to eat so early?"
"My family arrives hungry," he said.
Seeing that father playing with his children, I realized how weary I had grown of holding on to my history and learning Fred's. What we needed were some family rituals that left our pasts behind, ones that were fashioned from current experiences and that our family could grow into. They could be as ridiculously simple as a game of "touch the tree," as long as they belonged to all of us.
During that Sanibel stay, we rode bikes every day. My older son had training wheels, and my younger son traveled in a canopied kiddle trailer, which my husband and I took turns pulling behind our bikes.
The next year, my younger son rode on a tiny two-wheeler with training wheels. That spring break, Mike was determined to master it. I held the seat from behind and ran alongside, until I thought he could maintain the momentum solo. Each time I let go, he fell. And each time he fell, he got up and tried again, growing increasingly more frustrated. "I can't do it," he said finally, struggling to keep from crying.
"See if you can make it to the big yellow 'Pedestrian Crossing' sign," I said. "Give it one more try."
Mike mounted his bike and I gave him a push. Slowly he glided to the spot, and then shot me a triumphant look. A few days later, he downed a root beer float at the ice cream shop in a quasi-victory feast.
"There's where I learned to ride the two-wheeler," Mike announces, even five years later, when we drive past the spot. Were he to have pedaled by the place every day in his hometown neighborhood, I'm not sure it would have held as much significance after so many years.
The same holds true for the day Daniel and I raced to the wooden footbridge, where a neighbor said we would find an alligator.
At the edge of the water, 20 feet below, the gator sunned itself on a rock. A cautious smile spread across Daniel's face. We named the place Gator Bridge, and then told the story over and over again during our stay and once we were back home. This tale comfortably joined others from earlier stays the way the shells we collect fill a glass jar on our family-room bookcase.
On Sanibel, I see fathers and daughters, grandmothers and babies, mothers and daughters-in-law sharing walks, holding hands, and snapping photographs. Like modern-day rituals, the memories captured in the image of a street sign or the smoky tones found in a jar of beach glass remind us of who we are and where we've been.
My family and I are comfortable reexperiencing these touchstones year after year where we find a piece of ourselves in the call of a parrot or the familiar slope of a wooden footbridge.