As our families grow we try and find ways to make sure our children stay connected to their roots. We draw from our own childhood experiences and build new traditions with our partners, children and the friends we make along the way. In our Then and Now series we talk to moms and dads about how they channel these rich customs, that have been passed down through the generations, in their parenting today.
We're so excited to introduce you to Jessica Zyla, the founder of Suite Creative Studio. SCS helps companies with everything from market research and creating a line plan to making tech packs and communicating with factories. You can learn more about the fashion industry and Suite Creative Studio on their Website and Instagram.
I was born in Manchester, NH, the youngest of 5, including 3 older half siblings and one older sister from both my mom and dad. My mom, dad, sister and myself moved to Florida when I was 2. We lived there for 5 years. After my father passed away, it made more sense to be closer to our family so we moved back to NH. My mom and dad both grew up mostly in Manchester, NH but my mom was born in Buffalo, NY.
I moved to Tarrytown, NY for college, then to New York City after graduating. In total, I lived in New York for about 13 years before moving to Chicago with my husband. Here we had our daughter, Gaëlle, who is now 2 and a half. I am a fashion designer and the owner of Suite Creative Studio, which is an apparel design and development consulting firm.
What were your favorite traditions growing up?
Growing up, my favorite traditions were big family gatherings for the holidays. I have a lot of cousins and we were all really close so the holidays were a really fun time to hang out together. My grandmother (maternal) was known to be a pretty terrible cook, but she made the best lasagna in the world, which I always requested. It was the kitchen-sink kind, probably a bit different every time. She would put all kinds of vegetables, always with big chunks of broccoli, into her lasagna, and the perfect ratio of cheese to sauce. It was delicious.
Another favorite tradition was from my grandfather. Instead of birthday presents like toys, etc, he would take all of the cousins to an amusement park together in the summer. It was awesome. We got to run wild, and he mostly just watched us enjoying ourselves. If he ever did buy me a toy, I don’t remember it. But I do remember, fondly, our trips to the amusement park.
Probably my most impactful tradition was going camping in the summer to Hermit Island in Maine. We went for almost 30 years straight, and most everyone still goes. We would go the same time in August every year. It was a running joke that men weren’t allowed (boys were, of course) because it was all female adults; my mom and her sisters and sister-in-law, and then their girl friends started joining, too. My aunts are all really amazing cooks and would make gourmet meals on camping stoves and grills over the fire. One of my aunts would take us kids on individual nature walks, and she used to create something like a mini Olympics for us to compete with each other in different beach games. We always went the same week so we knew other families there with the same tradition. The friends we met there are very near and dear to my heart. The campground was completely safe, and on a small island (kind of more like a peninsula) about 3 miles long, so our parents really let us be free. We just checked in throughout the day when we were hungry, each time with at least a few extra mouths to feed that we picked up throughout the day, and then we’d go back on our merry way. We played in the ocean, climbed rocks, looked for deer, explored the entire island, played football and paddle ball on the beach, watched sunsets, stayed up until sunrise, made friendships, made memories...grew up. They are memories I am forever grateful for.
Now that you have kids, has the way you embrace traditions changed?
Yes and no. Now that I have a daughter, I do feel the importance of creating tradition. Many of my family traditions have all but faded away, or at the very least, look much differently now than they did when I was a kid. I find myself looking back a lot, and wanting to bring back the old times. I don’t know if I will be able to do exactly that, but if not I can at least create something new and just as meaningful for her.
We now live away from the rest of our family. Most of both my family and my husband’s family live on the east coast, with others scattered all over the country and the world. It’s a different familial landscape than when I was young and most of my family was within 10 miles. Over the past couple years since our daughter was born, we have made a point to take extended trips to the east coast to visit. We’ve now done numerous road trips east so that we can spend weeks with our families. We make it an adventure for our daughter and ourselves by stopping to explore different cities along the way to break up the long drive. It has allowed her to cultivate close relationships with our family even though we live far way. She loves it and now often asks to go on an “adventure”.
Traveling is something that is incredibly important to my husband and I, so we are giving that to our daughter. We want to let her see the world through other lenses beyond just her own, and what she sees growing up in our household. We want her to have experiences over things, memories over stuff. We want her to know her roots and her family’s and to see the countries they have come from, whether recently or generations ago.
How do you explain other families’ cultures and celebrations to your little ones?
So far, there has not been a lot of need for true explanation at her age, although I’m sure it’s coming. Instead, we just show up, stay curious and mindful. We teach her words and introductions in other languages. She knows that she says, “bom dia” to greet her Portuguese-Brazilian friend in the morning, “Ciao ciao” to her Italian friend when we part, and “besos” to give kisses to her Spanish speaking friends. When we go to other countries, we teach her to always learn and try to speak at least some words in the native language to show respect for their culture and hospitality. I think when children are young, they don’t always need explanation because they are inherently curious about other people and things and see new as new, rather than as “different”. The only explanation I can think to give her right now is that we all come from different backgrounds and places, with different traditions and cultures, and a whole lot to offer each other and the world.
We were in Brazil with Gaëlle when she was about a year and a half old. One of our stops was Bahia. One night, we were walking to dinner when a group of local girls, older than her, probably between 4 and 7 years old, were coming from capoeira practice. They were running around chasing each other and practicing their capoeira skills. Gaëlle approached them as if she wanted to join in on their fun. They didn’t skip a beat welcoming her in. They played for quite some time, even though they didn’t speak the same language or know each other at all. When we parted they all gave hugs and took pictures together. I hope that her love and openness for people and different cultures continues that way forever.
Do you have a favorite recipe you've gotten from your family that your kids also love?
Well, not a recipe because I don’t think she even had one, but I do channel my grandmother and try to replicate her lasagna. I wouldn’t call myself a good cook, but that’s usually a fan favorite. There are also many recipes that I would like to get from my dad’s family and from my husband’s family to pass on to our daughter. I’m going to make a point to do that this year!
How do you use clothes and accessories to teach your kids more about your heritage?
Well, I am American, a few generations deep on both sides of my family. I find that often, as Americans, we still hold onto where our families came from generations ago, at least as a self-descriptor. However, over the many years, so much of the old country/countries can get lost for different reasons. With my family tree collectively coming from about 6-8 different countries, any traditional clothing has been completely lost on me. We are planning a trip to Ghana soon, where Gaëlle’s paternal grandfather is from, and I am looking forward to learn, together with her, more about their traditional textiles and dress.
Clothing and accessories really are such an amazing way to express yourself and your culture! Gaëlle is already very interested in her clothes. Watching her style and expression grow and change through learning more about our family history and the world around her is something that I am most looking forward to.