Christmas 2016 was the year Santa left a fire pit under the tree for my family. It wasn’t the iPad my toddlers expected to see under the tree – Santa STILL hasn’t brought them one of those, even though all the other kindergarteners have tablets. No, this was a fully-assembled, everything-but-the-wood steel fire pit straight off the back of Santa’s sleigh. The kids looked at us, questioningly, as I looked at my husband, already hopeful for the family moments we’d make together in the light of autumn’s dancing flames.
We began our fire pit tradition relatively early in the season, in late July. It began simply, with our family of five gathered around the fire pit in our college camping chairs, roasting marshmallows. Our little boys fashioned their own homemade wire-hanger skewers for the first time. We learned to move our chairs away from the direction of the wind, and I developed a love-hate relationship with the smell of smoke in my thick strawberry blonde hair. As summer charged towards early fall, the marshmallows evolved into s’mores, the s’mores into heartier meals. And eventually, thankfully, the wire hangers into real metal skewers.
Some nights, we’d invite other close friends and families to join us, but in those early days, we fiercely guarded our family time as we established this new Saturday night habit. We said no to any and all obligations that would interfere with what my boys – ages 5, 2, and an infant at the time – affectionately deemed “Fire Pit Night”.
We gave ourselves permission to commit to family time and say no to other good opportunities. I used to feel obligated to give excuses as to why I couldn’t go to things, or volunteer for everything, but family time is a commitment that is just as important, if not exponentially more. My kids are still at the ages where their only real commitments are preschool, grade school and swim lessons, and sometimes a soccer game or two, so our “together time” is admittedly a little easier to protect than I’m sure it will be in the future when they are more heavily involved in extracurriculars. But I also know that we are setting a precedent for family time, and we are developing stronger relationships with our boys in the process.
Growing up, and even in our early dating years, my husband – then boyfriend – returned to his parents’ home for Saturday night Pizza Nights with his siblings. Throughout my husband’s entire childhood, his parents made homemade pizza for all ten of their children, and then everyone gathered in the family room for Pizza Night, which always included a movie. Some of his siblings have continued Pizza Night into adulthood with their own families, and I have struggled with wanting to establish a similar tradition of our own. My kids are a little too young for Game Night, and we never seemed to find time for making homemade pizza dough. Suddenly, Fire Pit Night fit the bill.
On Fire Pit Night, my husband takes a camping table outside and throws together “hobo meals” in foil packets – whatever he can find. Some nights, we have hamburger meat with potatoes, onions, and peppers from our rudimentary garden. We had just moved into our new house that first year, and basically, the garden was what had survived from the previous owners’ efforts. We don’t eat meat much nowadays, but the “hobo meals” tradition won’t change too drastically.
Just as I’ve learned (the hard way) with throwing over-the-top birthday parties, simple can be just as good as elaborate but offers less-stressful preparations. We stuck to the basics in the details of our family fire pit nights – a hearty meal, thick blankets, soulful music, and being present in the moment with each other. It didn’t always come easily.
One night, my husband brought home a product that promised “funky-colored” flames. The boys’ anticipation was contagious all day as the daylight dwindled. When it was finally time for my husband to build the fire, I was expecting the Aurora Borealis to emerge from the unassuming flames. Instead, the great drama was limited to a few subdued flickers that may or may not have been tealish-green in color. The boys’ disappointment was palpable. In the end, we decided we’d avoid cheap theatrics for the future and stick with the basics because the basics were enough on their own.
On another evening, my husband had gone inside to begin cleaning up after dinner one night, and I was left with just the three boys outside. A Florida Georgia Line song came on, one I had already designated as mine and my baby’s. I picked him up, wrapped his comfy blanket a little tighter, and slow-danced with him for the entire three-minute duration of the song.
One day, that’ll be our mother-son dance at his wedding. I think of all the Saturdays we have until then. We have plenty. Right?
And yet one day, at his wedding, I’ll think, where did all those Saturdays go?
I’ll know. They went to my kids. And our close friends. And their friends. (Because I can only hope that as our three boys grow older, they’ll invite their friends to Fire Pit Night, just as my husband brought me to Pizza Night early on.) One day they’ll realize we intentionally carved out that time for each other and guarded it fiercely against our bulging calendars.
Today, give yourself permission to say no. To guard family time. To keep things simple. To put your phones down lest you accidentally drop them in the fire. To look your kids in the eye and see the excitement in looking forward to a tradition that brings comfort and promises togetherness. They’ll get it. They’ll ask for it. On rainy days, they’ll negotiate an alternative.
What is your fire pit? Is it baking together? Pizzas? Evenings at the ball field? Movie night? Whatever it is, make it uniquely yours. Make it count. Keep it simple. And be all-in. Your children will remember.
Ashley Bartley is a wife, mom to three small boys, and an elementary school counselor in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She writes @TendingWild on Instagram and blogs at ashleybartley.com, where she encourages women to create a habit of pause in every small, great, and wild moment.