Wheatfield Near Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Photograph by Robert Clements

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Family ReOnion

Red hot dogs and hamburgers. Trademarks of a Maine family reunion.
I straggled back to a family reunion in August, while I was back in Maine. We have only ever had family reunions on my mother's side. My father's family was tiny, compared to my mother's family. It consisted of his mother and my grandmother (Dottie), his sister and my aunt, Ginny, Uncle Martin (uncle-in-law), and Stevie, my cousin, who was a older than we were and subject to the exasperations felt by a cool teenager forced to hang out with giggly, goofy cousins.  After Stevie made his obligatory visit with us, he hightailed it out of the house for better climes. The visit drooped after that. We siblings saw each other every damn day. Our cousins were the lifeblood of the family get-togethers.

First and second cousins. One in-law.
On my mother's side of the family, we had tons of cousins to pick from. My mother had four siblings. There were four kids in our family and we had, eventually, nineteen cousins. My aunt had nine children, with four of those kids our ages. One uncle had four wild boys a little younger than me, but they were still part of the gang. We all made up the older cousins. Each of us had a companion - a special - cousin. The much younger cousins were ignored back then.

Boston husband of first cousin and Patriot's logo.  Of course.
Oh, the wildness of cousins! The anticipation of getting together to catch up and play! First, our parents, and the aunts and uncles forced us outside. We were actually locked out unless we needed something drastic and it had better be good. Left to our own devices, we fought with each other, confided secrets, laughed, cried, scraped ourselves up, fell out of trees, off bicycles, down gullies, and off docks. We sunned ourselves, shunned each other, pitted boys against the girls, yelled and screamed, and lived out tragicomic days and nights wracked by sunburns and the knowledge that our visits would end too soon.

Leading up stairs to the sleeping room.
We especially loved going to my nine-cousin camp on a fresh-water pond scraped out by a glacial march across the state. Summers, we grew up on a tidal, salt-water river. Swimming depended upon the tide table. Mudflats were awful to negotiate, and the temperature of the water depended on the number of sunny days. But the pond was a marvel of consistent height and temperature, a wonderland of sunfish and turtles, and a battleground of inner tube fights and swimming contests. One cousin who grew up on the pond complained once to my aunt that, "All they want to do is go swimming," and she was right. We stayed in the water until our fingers were pruned and our lips were blue. Then, forced out by the adults, we played horse shoes and board games, badminton and volleyball. We took walks, accompanied by mosquitoes and the dust and exhaust fumes from passing cars. At night, we all slept in one open upstairs room, two or three to a bed. The next day, we did it all again.

This past August, I drove my rented car up to the pond camp, toting my 85-year old parents with me. They had had a spat before our ride, generated mainly by the frustrations of a forced 24-hour existence together. They sat silent in the car, except for terse words spoken by my macular-degenerated dad who gave directions that were not to be questioned. My mother sat in the back seat, her tiny form taking in the scenery. We stopped and started through the mall-ladened insanity that has become North Windham and took the right turn onto the dusty road that leads to the cottage. I took a wrong turn and had to backtrack past a new white-picket fence that divides the roads and confuses the memories. I got back on track, followed the pond to my left, turned right, then left, and found the camp.

Apple clock hanging on chimney.
The camp is small, with a front screened-in porch and three inside downstairs rooms. Cottage kitsch and genuine antiques furnish the rooms. One bathroom has served us all for generations. The screen door sounds off with its camp slam and pine needles need to be brushed off before we can enter. No one is locked out, these days. Anyone can come into the camp, anytime, for anything.

Screen, cousins, aunts, and formidable man.
When we were kids, a cribbage board or a board game covered the oil-clothed table top on the porch at all times, with raucous competition between players. This August, two young second cousins and an original cousin played a game that I didn't recognize. My second cousins welcomed me into the play, but it wasn't the same. I longed for Monopoly, or Trivial Pursuit. I longed for my special cousin, unable to attend because of distance. I looked around at my uncle, aunt, and my parents, who hold up what is left of a generation debilitated by the loss of an aunt and three uncles. Layers are peeled off in families as time dictates. They looked incredibly fragile, even as they took up their end of the porch.
Strong woman in chair.

A bathhouse down a wood-planked walkway is stuffed with Styrofoam noodles, which didn't exist when we were kids, and inner tubes - not our inner tubes, but the inner tubes belonging to the new generation of cousins, a much smaller,  more scattered group. Once, a dragon fly the size of a crow landed on the inside of the bathhouse door and kept my sister and her special cousin prisoner for about an hour, terrified that it would sew their mouths shut.  A passing boy cousin finally shooed it away.

Second cousins and an in-law
with Styrofoam noodle.
A steep hill leads down to the pond and a dilapidated dock. A diving platform has been anchored a little way off the dock; something we never had when we cousins ruled the pond. Stone steps lead into the water now. Before, we either slipped or jumped onto the sandy bottom that leads out to a composted murk of weeds and water plants. My nephew, who will be a father next spring, tried to coax his dodgy Boxer dog into the water. I watched teen-aged second cousins and a brother-in-law floating on a purple noodle play in the water while I sat on a bench with my sister and her cousin, just as our mothers had done before us.  "Come on in," my nephew urged me, and I went up for my suit.

The dock, second-cousin, nephew and boxer, in-law.
I stood in the stultified air of the upstairs common bedroom and heard the breathing of my generation as it slept away a summer night, oblivious to the fact that some day, a middle-aged woman struggling into her unflattering but comfortable bathing suit would wonder at the expiration date of youth.  I walked down the steep hill to the water, holding on to the rope that was once scorned as the crutch of the timid and lame, and stepped down the slimy rocks into the pond water.

A twenty-something niece, who only has four cousins, joined me and we swam out to the diving platform, where I struggled for a few undignified seconds to get up a ladder, then I gave up and swam past it, toward the other side of the pond. My niece and I parted the waters in front of us and noted the quiet. I remembered that the pond was filled with the roar of over-sized motor boats once, and kids screamed as they jumped off docks, and the smells of grills cluttered with red hot dogs and hamburger meat scorched the summer air. This August day was cool, with the chance of rain. No motorboat cracked the peace or threatened to run us over. The grill was located behind the came and away from the water, which took on a faint aroma of swamp, of dank age, of something not sunfish lurking in the muck far below us. I turned around frequently and looked back at the distance we had swum, at the little figures in the water and at those walking up and down the steep hill, wrapped in towels and anticipating lunch.

Diving dock in pond.
My niece and I talked a little bit during our swim, but not much. She's quiet, this one. My special cousin could out-swim me when we were kids, and she did, leaving me behind to always finish last in our quest to touch the bushes on the other side of the pond. But on this August day my niece swam beside me, and she waited while I waded through leach-infested muck to touch the bushes, like I used to do. Then she swam back across the pond with me toward grandmothers and grandfathers, fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers and their spouses, and cousins. Maybe not all of the old cousins, but some of them and some of the new ones. We swam back toward the perennial box of red hot dogs and hamburgers, which now share space with olive oil, fresh mozzarella and basil, salsa and baked potato chips, toward pine needles and slamming doors, chipped blue fingernail polish and corn-on-the-cob, blueberry cake, condiments, and sliced onions for garnish. We swam toward our family.

Corn and second cousin.