Fam­ily re­unions: break­downs but lots of love

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Janet Sheri­dan

A few sum­mers ago, my fam­ily gath­ered for a three-day re­union in Wy­oming and at­tended my hus­band’s fam­ily re­union in Illi­nois a week later. I needed more re­cov­ery time. My eyes had barely be­gun to re­fo­cus when we de­parted for Illi­nois.

I have six sib­lings; Joel has seven. Count­ing spouses, chil­dren, grand­chil­dren, fam­ily friends with more courage than sense, and cu­ri­ous strangers wearing Oh-my-god ex­pres­sions, both fam­i­lies be­came mul­ti­tudes — or mobs, de­pend­ing on one’s view­point.

The un­for­tu­nate peo­ple in charge of plan­ning re­unions for such large, ex­tended fam­i­lies de­serve pity and ex­tra dessert. My sib­lings and I ro­tate the chore; when our turn ar­rives, we stut­ter, lose sleep and de­velop rashes. Blaine worked on the Wy­oming event for months. Then, dur­ing the re­union, he raved about herd­ing cats and kicked tree stumps.

Blaine’s break­down be­gan when he sug­gested spe­cific dates, with which the rest of us found fault.

We had pre­vi­ously sched­uled func­tions we couldn’t pos­si­bly miss: den­tal ap­point­ments, pet spay­ings, and ripen­ing toma­toes. We ex­changed calls, texts and emails of di­min­ish­ing ci­vil­ity un­til he man­aged to force a grudg­ing con­sen­sus. Next, he had to find a site that could han­dle our ram­pag­ing horde. Again, bick­er­ing tran­spired — mostly po­lite: “You think I’m go­ing to drive four-hun­dred miles to stay in a cabin with mice and spi­ders and with­out air con­di­tion­ing? You never did have good sense.”

In July, our spats for­got­ten, we con­vened at Louis Lake in the Wind River Moun­tains. The early ar­rivers chose the best cab­ins and dis­sected those not at­tend­ing or arriving late. Some claimed Don­ald would par­tic­i­pate only if we met in his back­yard — and then he’d leave early. Oth­ers thought Bessie al­ways ar­rived fraz­zled and sev­eral hours late be­cause she en­joyed the at­ten­tion she re­ceived from the wor­ri­ers. And all of us cri­tiqued those who ar­rived with an al­tered ap­pear­ance: Pete’s dragon tat­too, Jed’s weight gain, Alice’s orange hair and Gerta’s en­hanced chest.

As more peo­ple ar­rived, the fun be­gan. Tod­dlers wob­bled through forests of adult legs, lost their cloth­ing, and gnawed on pinecones. Run­ning pell-mell into the lake, they tested their par­ents’ re­flexes; then they fell asleep on stairs, in the ca­noe and at din­ner with ten­drils of spaghetti in their hair.

School-aged chil­dren clung to their par­ents and eyed one an­other shyly be­fore re­spond­ing to some se­cret sig­nal only they rec­og­nized, which united them in ri­otous play. Teenagers proved they could multi-task: check­ing their cell phones, nod­ding in time to mu­sic from their ear buds, dis­cussing es­cape plans and rep­ri­mand­ing their sib­lings.

New par­ents tended to their ba­bies with a dis­tracted air, in­tent on con­ver­sa­tions with the cousins they once chased and teased. Older folks is­sued health bul­letins, dis­cussed re­tire­ment ben­e­fits, and re­mem­bered when they or­ga­nized the soft­ball games and en­cour­aged the wa­ter fights. As we sat in lawn chairs and watched the hub­bub, a sis­ter-in-law re­marked, “Can you be­lieve it? We’ve be­come the old aunts.”

Those with the strong­est voices or bossi­est na­tures is­sued com­mands as needed: “You kids quit throw­ing water­melon rinds!” “Who­ever took Roscoe’s cane needs to bring it back right now!” “Some­one make Emily stop drink­ing from that pud­dle!” and the ever-pop­u­lar, “Food’s ready; there’s plenty for ev­ery­body; no need to stam­pede and shove.”

Food tastes bet­ter when pre­pared by loved ones and eaten shoul­der-toshoul­der with those who know and ac­cept your tri­umphs and fail­ures, strug­gles and strengths, char­ac­ter flaws and ques­tion­able pol­i­tics. Each year dur­ing our re­unions, long-time re­la­tion­ships deepen and new ones form around ta­bles filled with fa­vorite fam­ily recipes and mul­ti­ple desserts.

Too soon, it was time to leave. Some de­parted stealth­ily, qui­etly drift­ing away to avoid the tu­mult of good-byes; oth­ers hugged any­one who wan­dered within reach. A few cried; sev­eral wanted to. We ex­changed prom­ises to keep in touch and pro­posed con­tra­dic­tory plans to JL, next year’s plan­ner.

Fi­nally, cars were loaded; chil­dren waved from rear win­dows; and, driv­ing away, my heart over­flowed with gratitude and love for my fam­ily.

Janet Sheri­dan’s book, “A Sea­soned Life Lived in Small Towns,” is avail­able on Ama­zon. She writes from Craig, and blogs at aunt­beu­lah.com.

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