September 27, 2021
My cousin handed me a faint xerox copy of a forty-year-old handwritten letter. It was a copy of a copy, and that possibly also a copy. It was written by a long-deceased uncle to a long-deceased aunt. He wrote of his health and of a stay at a Veteran’s Hospital. He asked about the aunt’s daughters, one of whom is the cousin. He wrote the letter shortly before he passed away.
We were at our long-anticipated family reunion, when people pass around such things. Others brought similar items, letters, photos, greeting cards, diary entries, from departed parents, aunts, uncles, siblings. About 30 people showed up, cousins, their spouses, their kids, and a few grandkids, to a scenic woodland spot in the North Carolina mountains.
I guess most people have been to a family reunion. I can recall two others. I enjoyed myself at both, even when I had to introduce myself to people who didn’t recognize me, whom I didn’t recognize. But the theme—“in the end we’re all family”—tends to overcome the awkward moments, at least in America. In other places—parts of Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, family and family connections convey religious or near-religious standing and obligations. Even in our secular world, strangers acknowledge relationships and warm to each other, maybe while holding a drink or at dinner, even knowing they may never see each other again. Sons and daughters and cousins and uncles and aunts may drift away, but families endure.
This reunion wasn’t my idea, and I didn’t step up to help with the planning. Others, mainly a cousin in Florida, did all the work, the rest of us fell in line with her decisions. I guessed she picked the site because it’s roughly the same driving distance for those living in New York and southern Florida. For us, in the northwest corner of South Carolina, it was an easy trip.
We arrived the day before the festivities and checked into a place a few miles from the reunion site. We headed over late the next day, Friday, after a hair-raising drive up and down a tangle of narrow mountain roads. Mountains are pretty much all there is in western North Carolina (last week’s post). The site was a kind of country log cabin resort, nestled in a valley between steep, forested hills. A fast-moving rock-strewn creek flowed through the valley. It was a pretty spot. The creek babbled, birds chirped.
Nearly everyone invited showed up, for the same reason Sandy and I did, it’s been a while since we saw each other. Several I expected to see were not there. The eight first cousins who came, including me, are nearly all the remaining children of our parents within a complicated extended family. Our mothers were three sisters who spent the last years of their lives far from each other, in New Jersey, Virginia, and Florida. Yet they always were close.
More than twenty years ago my mom put on a family reunion. She rented a big house on Long Island and a Knights of Columbus hall for the gathering. The place was full of little kids, preteens, and teens, because that’s where we—Sandy and me, and the cousins—were in our lives. The aunts and uncles came, smiling and hugging. They finished the evening singing old Irish tunes. Then we went our separate ways, some of us for years. For most of the older folks it was the last reunion.
The North Carolina affair was a happy one. We kept our covid social distances. Everyone cooked something. It rained off and on, we sat under an awning of a meeting hall in that mountain forest looking at the mementoes, rehashing our lives and the lives of those no longer with us. We tried to recall the last time any of us got together. For some it was a wedding for a cousin’s daughter in Virginia Beach two years ago. But without saying much about it, we all know we’re past the family wedding phase.
Many of those present showed up for my mother’s funeral in Jersey. I drove to Virginia Beach for one aunt’s funeral, Long Island, N.Y., for the other.
I recall these things—who doesn’t? Two of the funerals were on warm sunny days, one in spring, the other in fall. My Aunt Peggy’s funeral a few years ago was on a bitter cold day following a massive snowstorm on Long Island. After the Mass we drove slowly past the house she had lived in years ago, and where her nine children, my cousins, grew up. At the cemetery, all of us, in our overcoats, plodded through the snow to the gravesite, bowing into an icy wind.
Funerals have been the trend. None of the others who passed were youthful, but some were within hailing distance of 45 or 50. The rest of us keep piling on the years and doctor’s visits. Life’s inevitable pattern had started: three years ago a death in North Carolina, a year later a memorial service for another cousin in Florida, two more on Long Island. We’ve all got our dark suits and dresses cleaned and pressed.
We were all on our best behavior, but we knew that tensions simmer here and there. People may be related, they recognize family ties, yet may become strangers to each other. Most of us incline, at least for a while, to our parents’ values and priorities. Experiences and relationships may lead in different paths. Some folks go through rough patches that affect them deeply. Disagreement—conflict—about big things and small things, maybe over years, can metastasize. The family reunion can put a point on hard feelings. People may show up, or not show up. Maybe some are not invited. We hope the visceral sense of family ties—love—will overcome.
The final evening wore on, the rain slacked off, the kids played in the creek, some of the adults had their tug-of-war on the wet grass, slipping and sliding. As expected, the team with the weightier members won every match. Somebody set off fireworks, the Roman candle type you hear on the Fourth of July. Then a group, mostly the women, gathered around the karaoke machine, locked arms, and sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” “Danny Boy,” and the whole Irish end-of-the-party routine. The rest of us sprawled in deck chairs and smiled. Then slowly we all drifted off. Until next time. Maybe.