A timeless tradition

“If you do something two years in a row, is it a tradition?” Zach asked. I knew my 10-year-old son was referring to our family’s second annual visit to Sumter, South Carolina, to see his sister and attend the Iris Festival.

“I think that’s more of a habit that can become a tradition,” my husband, Steve, offered. “But I’d say that 76 years is definitely a tradition.” That was how many years Sumter had hosted the state’s longest continually running festival.

Ironically, breaking tradition was how we found ourselves at the Iris Festival at this same time last year. Since she was old enough to pitch a tent, our eldest daughter, Lauren, had spent Memorial Day weekend camping with Steve. But last year was her freshman year at the University of South Carolina campus in Sumter and she had a new boyfriend, James, she wanted us to meet, so our family of six got together in Sumter instead. Now, a year later, we were back.

Rolling and running around

Don’t be fooled by its name. Sure, the Iris Festival is the place to see some pretty spectacular floral masterpieces and marvel at the wonders of gardening, but it also has an impressive lineup of amusements. Just ask our 7-year-old daughters, Claire and Kallie. The twins actually turned down ice cream so they could partake in one of the festival’s most popular kid magnets: the human hamster ball.

“I’m so glad they said no to ice cream,” I told Steve as we watched the girls topple head over heels while enclosed in a giant inflatable ball. That kind of 360° fun may not work well with my 44-year-old stomach, but all the kids running to get in line again seemed to love it. James was working here at “Just Kidding Around”—the festival’s free children’s area—and it was nice to see him again. Even if it was only for 15 minutes or so before he had to go supervise a game of laser tag in which Zach was determined to dominate.

“If 76 years is a tradition, can 75 years be a tradition, too?” Claire asked her father the next morning. It was day two of the festival and we were at the Swan Lake Visitors Center checking out an interactive display dedicated to the nearby Shaw Air Force Base, which was celebrating 75 years of service. “I don’t see why not,” he answered while reading about bomber jets and legendary fighter pilots and relaying their significance to Zach.

After planes came the classic cars. Last year, I practically had to drag Steve away from a ’64 Corvette at the festival’s Head Turnerz Classic Car Show. This year, that same car was back, along with “new” old cars to turn our heads. After classic cars came the golf carts, part of the East Coast Golf Cart Show—another highlight from last year.

Blooming where planted

There’s so much to do and see at festivals it’s easy to get tired and overwhelmed. But the beauty of the Iris Festival is that it’s in such an idyllic location, Swan Lake Gardens. In the midst of all the activity and excitement you can just relax and appreciate some of nature’s finest Japanese irises in full bloom. So when the younger kids asked to go back to Just Kidding Around to ride the rides and play tag with James again, I was happy Steve volunteered to take them. “C’mon, Mom,” Lauren said, taking my hand. “Let’s go see the swans.”

I was grateful for the alone time with my college sophomore. While we admired the park’s different species of swans, she caught me up to speed on the things in her life that we couldn’t talk about via texting or FaceTime. She was growing up, and I couldn’t think of a more beautiful place to do that than Sumter. In two years she would graduate and selfishly, a part of me hoped she would find a job nearby and stay there. That’s how much I was enjoying the city.

A hashtag makes it official

That night, it was Kallie’s turn to ask. “Is 11 years a tradition?” In a family whose normal go-to question is “What’s next?” this tradition question seemed to be the weekend’s most popular query. “Sure is!” Steve responded. We were watching the 11th Annual Shrine Parade, and the hosts this year, the Jamil Streakers, were waving as they passed by in bright yellow mini cars—quite the spectacle.

As the rest of the parade floats passed, I noticed myself shift from being utterly entertained to overwhelmingly grateful. Steve had his arm around my waist, Zach and the twins were making friends with the local kids standing next to us and Lauren was capturing these moments with her iPhone. I peered over her shoulder at one point and saw she had just posted one of the photos from the first day of the festival on Instagram. It was a picture of the six of us goofing off in front of an Iris Festival banner.

There was no caption but the hashtag said it all: #tradition.

Learn more about Sumter.

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