The newest branch in our family tree was dedicated to God on March 5, 2023. The name of this tiny twig is Olorian Karl Hinkle and he was precisely four months old on that chilly Sunday morning our family stood in front of the congregation and committed to raising little Baby Olo in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In return, the church universal committed to standing with his parents as they bring him up.
For this occasion, Baby Olo was dressed in a baptism gown handmade nearly 100 years ago and originally worn by my mother in 1924. Her Aunties Mattie and Nellie Lerraas, sewed it especially for Darlene and she was baptized when she was just five weeks old. She looked like a little baby angel.
Since then, all five of Darlene’s children wore it when we were baptized. Five of her grandchildren wore it when they were baptized or dedicated as infants. And at this point, Baby Olo makes 12 of her great-grandchildren who donned the gown at their baptisms or dedications. We store it in a pretty silver box with the list inside.
Darlene raised her kids in the Lutheran faith so we were all baptized with a sprinkle. Some of her grandchildren were baptized as Catholic, and some were dedicated in the Christian faith thru a variety of other denominations.
The gown and the slip are not fancy, not like the ones so easily ordered online today. They are plain and simple, made of white cotton with some lace panels at the neckline and tatting around the hem. Not fussy at all.
Our family has more than a few generational traditions, but I love the baptism gown the most. It speaks to the power of the little things, plain and simple with a great undercurrent of power.
As the decades wove themselves into a century, our family and faith have grown bigger, stronger, and more diverse, largely due to the little traditions and habits we embrace. Little customs like showing up for church every Sunday, serving lutefisk and lefse on Christmas Eve, and wearing a solje brooch on the 17th of May, Norwegian Constitution Day. Small daily practices like open-mindedness, gratitude, and curiosity. Life can get hard from time to time, and little norms can serve as strong scaffolding paving a pathway forward.
There is a place in India near the Bangladesh border, where indigenous people create bridges without using concrete or rebar, nails or screws. Instead, they weave the roots of Indian rubber trees into footbridges. The structures can withstand the torrents of monsoon season and the harsh conditions of rainforest life. Conventional bridges would quickly be destroyed by this area known as the wettest place on earth. Over the centuries, people of the Khasi and Jaintia tribes have learned through trial and error how to best train the tiny roots to interlace and grow across rivers and gorges. Most bridges cannot be completed in one lifetime, so the elders teach the young the techniques required to keep the living breathing bridges growing. Paul Salopek writes for National Geographic and I recently read his article about the living root bridges in the remote northeast corner of India. He writes,
“The green hills of Meghalaya state—a high, sodden, rumpled, and stream-slashed corner of India’s remote and beautiful northeastern panhandle—can be a misery to walk. The corrugated slopes sheeted in mist are clogged with jungle undergrowth and greased with mud. During the monsoon rains, foot trails between villages plunge again and again into gorges that hiss with waterfalls and fierce impassable rivers. Navigating these natural obstacles—in a climate where 40 feet of rainwater plummets from the sky every year—requires clever toes, iron lungs, and the power of prolonged observation. It demands thousands of years of attentiveness. Lifetimes of experimentation. Generations of problem-solving.
“The result is a footbridge that can last 500 or 600 years, getting stronger with passing time. All of this is courtesy of the ingenuity of the Khasi and Jaintia indigenous people who trek these paths from their earliest baby steps. The Indian rubber tree produces strong, rope-like aerial roots that, when lashed onto a scaffold of hollowed-out betel nut trunks or tied to bamboo stalks, can be trained patiently over decades to grow horizontally across steep ravines and riverbanks. Eventually, with aching slowness, yet tirelessly, steadily, the roots are coaxed to entwine, to form the struts and supports for living footbridges that can hold up to 50 people at a time. These are bridges that breathe. They are architecture built of memory.”
The bridges of Meghalaya promote community and commerce, indeed life itself, between villages. In a small way, I think the little things we do in our families, our old traditions, our faith, our sense of curiosity and ingenuity, and our love for others, promote community and sustenance that last beyond a lifetime. Some customs and values we promote for many decades and there may be days when we wonder if we have any impact at all.
And then one day, a century after the fact, a little baby boy is dressed in his great-grandmother’s baptism gown as he unwittingly takes his first baby steps into his own faith. He looked like a little baby angel.
My prayer is that the footbridges carefully constructed by Olorian’s forefathers – and foremothers – those living bridges created of tradition and faith, of curiosity and compassion, will guide and protect him as he takes on the sometimes slippery paths that will lead him along his own amazing journey.