Family Reunion Memories
The upcoming holiday season provides numerous opportunities for family gatherings. When nostalgia becomes an accelerant, we can fall victim to unrealistic expectations. So stay alert and keep it real.
For me, the most important ingredient to a successful family get-together is humor. Laughter mixes in with a heaping cup of love, a pinch of angst and possibly a teaspoon of disappointment. But levity extinguishes the potential sparks and prevents a four-alarm blaze from erupting.
Thanks to my mother’s commitment to planned family events through the years, I have enjoyed my share of gatherings. And now, as a parent and a grandparent, I find myself orchestrating my own activities in the shadow of her memory. I decided to expose some past moments of imperfection in a story. Keep in mind that the recollection of events is seen through the lenses of my memory. The details are heart-felt reminders that nothing discouraged us. As you will see… love and family always prevailed.
“Mom, we don’t have any talent,” my college freshman daughter Samantha confessed.
“Yeah, I only played the trumpet for a few weeks in fifth grade,” her seventeen-year-old brother Rick chimed in.
“I know, but Grandma requested each grandchild prepare a short talent presentation for the Saturday night cocktail hour.”
The conversation took place at our kitchen table after I opened the detailed summer reunion invitation and read it out loud. My mother was infamous for planning family gatherings. Just like Martha Stewart, Mom creatively staged the events from start to finish and sent out formal invitations, complete with agendas. My three sisters and our respective families tried to make things go smoothly, but sometimes an event occurred that clouded the festivities.
One summer when my kids were in elementary school, Mom wanted to have a flag raising ceremony to start off the reunion festivities in Ames. She instructed all of the young grandchildren to line up on the driveway of the guest house next to my childhood home. Small hands waved miniature flags. Over-sized hats with red ribbons balanced on shiny hair. John Phillip Sousa marches blared from a boom box in the barn as the kids began high stepping towards the primitive wooden flag pole in the back yard. Just as the procession was about to reach the staging area, my brother-in-law exited the guest house.
“Um-mm I think there’s a problem with the plumbing in the upstairs toilet,” he remarked as he lit up an unfiltered Camel and flicked ash on the grass.
“What? You were not supposed to use THAT bathroom!” My mother shrieked as she barged through the side porch entrance. The fragile wooden screen door slammed behind her.
The children froze in place. Tiny flags sagged above their heads. Hats fell to the ground.
“Dick, get in here!” Mom screamed to my Dad through the dusty screen. The piercing wail easily rivaled the test siren from the village’s fire station at the end of the street.
Dad went inside to inspect. He found the foul contents of the off-limit toilet deposited on the dirt floor of the cellar.
The flag ceremony was delayed as Mom nursed a broken blood vessel in her eye.
Bad luck also had visited a previous reunion at a nearby lake-side camp. Although it rained for a large portion of the week, we managed to fit in some fun outdoor activities. On the last day, Mom and Dad invited paternal grandparents and a great-aunt and great-uncle to join us for lunch. Four generations gathered on the back wooden deck of the rental house. After the oldest relatives departed, Mom demanded a picture. Family units stood together. Kids in the front. Parents in the back. And then, it happened.
Immediately after the directive, half of the deck collapsed. A large portion of the group disappeared from the camera’s view finder. Victims crashed eight feet below. I held on to my four-year-old son and six-year-old daughter on my descent and ultimately we bounced off my husband. Fortunately, nobody rolled down the steep cliff into the lake. Instead, we stuck like rocks in the mud. Mom and Dad crouched on all fours next to me. No one said a word.
I recalled the air in the back of the ambulance smelled funny as I put my head between my knees.
“Six shattered ribs and a broken collar bone” the doctor informed me after my husband was admitted to the local hospital. David was at the bottom of the heap.
“Your husband is lucky. One of the shards of a broken rib narrowly missed his heart,” the doctor continued. The rest of us only suffered bumps and bruises. I eventually erased the bad memories of that family reunion. However, David’s body was slower to heal.
Upon inspection two days later, we discovered a huge termite infestation in the underside of the cabin’s back deck. Sections of chewed wood and the weight of the large gathering led to the collapse. We didn’t have a chance. But the ill-fated event at the lake did not discourage my mother.
And so here we were again, preparing for another family reunion. This time we were summoned to individual cabins on the shores of Lake Champlain, Vermont. The cousins were older. My youngest sister had children of her own now. And I was a widow. My beloved David had succumbed to fatal spinal cord injuries from a car accident six years after the dreadful porch incident. My family was reduced to three.
“Come on guys, think,” I encouraged my kids.
“I can play Dad’s harmonica,” Rick offered.
“You don’t know how to play it,” Samantha reminded him.
“Neither did Dad.” Rick laughed. Samantha and I joined in with giggles.
It was a long drive to our destination. Friday night we relaxed and became familiar with the property.
At six o’clock on Saturday night we all gathered in our best outfits in the manicured English garden for our reunion’s Opening Ceremony. Being an Olympic year, Mom awarded medals in assorted non-athletic categories. Then we entered the private dining room. Fancy set tables greeted us. A piano, a microphone and a metal music stand tempted the participants. The servers lined up along the side wall.
First, there was a piano piece by one of the eight granddaughters. A few clinkers joined the well-executed notes. Next, a violin selection from another granddaughter. At times the sound from the instrument mimicked an angry cat. The fun did not stop. Yet another granddaughter delivered an original poem dedicated to Grandma and Grandpa. I noticed a slight nod of approval from Mom and Dad.
And now on stage….
My son, the only grandson in the litter, stood up in his blue blazer and accompanied his sister to the talent area. Samantha removed the rubber band from a large roll of paper under her arm. Staying in my seat, I took a deep breath and a large swig from my scotch and water.
Rick reached in his jacket pocket. When he brought his father’s harmonica up to his lips, the overhead light reflected off the top metal covering. Inhales and exhales prompted squeaks and trills. Nothing recognizable.
As my son continued to fill the air with off-key random bursts, Samantha unfurled the paper roll. Sheet by sheet, she presented the masterpieces created in her collegiate art class. Nudes. Charcoal drawings of distorted body parts filled the large panels. One after another, her delicate hands exposed the pictures. The selection grew worse with each reveal.
My parents turned into statues. I heard the wait staff snicker behind me. The only familial reaction came from my Camel-smoking brother-in-law. He stood, raised his empty glass in my direction and then proceeded to order his third cocktail.
The show was over and dinner was served. No one in the room said a word about our talent presentation that night … or ever. To this day my children and I fondly refer to that evening’s performance as “Ditties and Titties” as we fall into laughter.
I hope during this holiday season you can maintain a sense of humor. There may be some disagreements and a broken ornament here or there. Possibly burnt food will set off the smoke alarm. A small child may spike a high fever and leave a trail of vomit just as the festivities begin. But that is what our memories are. Colorful. Unique. And they provide us with fanciful stories to tell in the years to come when tiny footsteps are no longer heard and smudged handprints on windows have been erased.
Best wishes to all of you during this holiday season and may your upcoming days be rich and colorful, bursting with love and jiggling with laughter.