Family has been a lifelong journey for me. When I was two, my mother removed me from my father. Life was now rearranged into “regular”—in New York City with my mother—and “visits” –in the summer, to my dad. Though I often spent 4 months a year with him, my mother’s terminology had its intended effect. “Home” was with her, not him. But I felt more “at home” with him. Which meant I was homesick no matter where I was.
Those precious visits to my father invariably involved forays from his home in western PA to northern Ohio and our extended family there—including 13 first cousins. I lived for those visits.
On my mother’s side, it was like we were in witness protection. As I grew up, I knew she had a sister and five brothers, aunts and uncles, two parents— but I’d never seen them, except once when I was three months old. By the time I met them all (my mom finally got over being mad at her mom), when I was about eight, I acquired 13 more cousins. Jackpot!
There was something so powerful in knowing I had people. Every day I spent with my cousins and other extended family was about creating and discovering history. That shared history—of DNA, generational memory, and memories forged in cousins’ back yards— has sustained me in many ways over the years.
I’ve since realized that DNA, and even fond memories, are not always enough to carry a relationship into maturity. But sometimes, you just get lucky.
What are the odds, I wonder, that the 14 offspring of 4 people born in the 1920s + spouses, the chosen life partners of said 14 offspring, and a combined 22 from the next generation (and even their spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends), would like each other enough to spend 3 days together on an island in a big house? Like…24 hours a day. Did I mention: on an island. (AKA no easy escape route.) And not just once, but over and over again? I don’t know. Maybe it happens a lot. But that’s what we do—my dad’s genome pool—the Park clan.
Richard Bach (remember him?) wrote: “The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life.” I’ll go with that. But what a blessing when the two converge, and the respect and joy and the blood go together?
There are 5 basic things that cement this bond, every few years when we gather together on an island in Lake Erie. 1. PLAY 2. FOOD 3. WORK 4. TALK 5. LAUGHTER.
A deck of cards, a baseball bat, a volleyball, a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle (or three in one weekend, one done twice). A massive game of trivia played by all 45 of us, in teams with ludicrous names. Who cares? To play is the thing. (Apologies for a faulty reference to a famous quote by Shakespeare that has nothing to do with playing.) How often do we play in life? If you are not under 10 or on a team of some sort, you probably do not play as much as you should.
65 year old cousins and 50 year old aunts, and cousins-in-law, 20 something second cousins– a collection of sorts, all tiptoeing into the expansive, sea-like Lake Erie with floatation devices and water shoes, to swim, or just hang—literally—on noodles, and chat, laugh, wash their hair. Play and the time to play.
I’d sit willingly for 3 hours straight on a blanket under the trees beside the lake, playing Spades or Hearts with any and all comers, from my 10 year old niece (not to be underestimated) to my 30-something first cousin once removed who calls me “Aunt Vanessa” because he can and I love him so.
This year there was a bit of edgy competition in some of the contests, but balanced nicely with those willing to poke fun at a slight overabundance of wanting-to-win when half the people on a team are either under 12, over 60, or never played volleyball/baseball/trivia/spades before. Laugh, wink, fade to sunset, a glass of wine, and arms around shoulders.
Never underestimate the power and influence of good food. We bring a truckload of fresh groceries over on the ferry to stock the house’s 2 refrigerators. Pre-arranged teams comprised of 5-7 family members of multiple generations, and none of them from the same nuclear unit—each team is responsible for one meal from preparation and presentation through clean-up. One. That’s it. The menu is prepared ahead, but the inspiration, timing, insouciant je-ne-sais-quoi-mystery of the meal’s creation is a magic that happens within the team itself….
And the food. Is. So. Good. It probably helps that everyone has worked up an appetite swimming or hitting balls with a bat or laughing so hard the tummy ache of laugh-muscles just fades into hungry belly. It also helps that the few foodies in the family plan the menus (my sisters and me, basically). And that smart people (and this family does have smart going for it) make good decisions. And then there’s my bro-in-law-aka-secret-weapon Joe who can grill or smoke anything and is willing to wake up at 6 a.m. to do it. But whatever. 45 people finding a seat on one of two porches, the living room, or the kitchen to talk and eat and groan with satisfaction. Feeding and being fed. That’s a family thing, right?
For our reunion weekends, food and work go together. Those meal teams work hard. Knowing this is their one responsibility, and that the rest of the food will be made by other teams, releases all kinds of motivation, not to mention team spirit and lots of creative problem solving. Over the years (we’ve been doing this since the mid-90s), I’ve noticed that the work binds us together. Pride and accomplishment and camaraderie all go together with getting-the-job-done focus.
Whether it’s making or stripping beds, cleaning a bathroom, or doing laundry, we benefit from the fact that we are NOT in a hotel, at a resort, or on a cruise. The tasks are few enough, and the rewards of being part of it all… are many.
Like minds. That’s part of it. And the fact that we like each others’ minds. Talk is a major part of the mirepoix that makes those family weekends so delicious. A bunch of curious, thoughtful, and articulate (not to mention funny) people who manage to be great listeners (recipe for conversation Nirvana?) with loads of time to spend just plain schmoozing.
Where shall we go to have our next in-depth convo? This is not a question we ask ourselves. In the hallway outside the bathroom is a good place. Standing in front of the stove while one or more of us is flipping pancakes. In two or a few of the 8 zillion rocking chairs on one of two porches. On a blanket by the lake. In the lake. In a hammock. Standing at the edge of the grove as the sun blinks below the horizon. I even had one cousin call me at home a week before the reunion to get a head start on conversation. He was worried we might not have enough time when we got there.
As good as the food is, if I had to give it up to keep the amount of laughter that happens in 3 days, I would.
Family is worth any effort. I have a cousin who flies in from Texas every time. One from Colorado and another from Georgia. We start talking about the “next time” before the weekend ends.
My niece, Jane, was in tears on the last night of our weekend. She is 12. She doesn’t want to wait two or three years for the next family reunion. She wants one every year. (The practical issues and expense for people was not factoring in to her calculation. Nor should it.) Time’s passage is as vivid to Jane—if not more so—than to those of us on the other side of 50. Change happens. It happens to her (probably daily) and there are no guarantees, no promises, no sure things. “Please, Aunt Vanessa. I don’t want to wait.”
Neither do I.