“I liked having some time to myself. Our family was such a close one, you could get smothered. Of course, we didn't always agree with one another. Sometimes I quarreled with my brother and sisters, but I couldn't remember hating anyone for more than five minutes.”
― Gloria Whelan
― Gloria Whelan
I keep saying I am going to make a scrapbook of the family photographs. I have a box full of them, and a Ziploc bag with more, and then there are the thousands that are on the computer, and the hundreds at my mother’s house that, miraculously, survived the fire. I have every intention of organizing them, creating slideshows, making some kind of order from the chaos. This summer, I actually have time to do these things, but then I get lost in just looking at the pictures and somehow manage to waste the hours that I should spend putting them together. I don’t know; maybe it’s better that way. Each photo is a story in itself.
The picture I have in front of me now is one of the five of us children sitting on the pier at my uncle’s house by the lake. It was somewhere near Valdosta, Georgia, down one of many dirt roads that existed in that area at the time. Every summer we went to the family reunion, and every summer we had a pre-reunion get-together at Uncle Julian and Aunt Myra’s house. I learned to fish from that pier and caught tadpoles in the shallow part of the lake, which allegedly was inhabited by water moccasins and huge alligators. Uncle Julian always had enough watermelon and boiled peanuts to feed an army. I remember that I once participated in a seed-spitting contest with my brother and some of my boy cousins when my mother wasn’t looking. At family reunions I had a bit of freedom from watchful parental eyes-there were so many people around that my mother figured someone would rescue us if we fell out of a tree or tumbled into the lake.
Of course, getting there was half the “fun”, especially the camping part. Imagine seven people sleeping in a pop-up camper designed for four. Eventually my father added another “room” that was actually a glorified tent attached to the camper. Family togetherness was a necessity in those days, and we were expected to be nice to each other, which included not killing each other over games of Crazy Eights or the best seat in the car. It also included politely eating the bacon and eggs that tasted of Coleman fuel. The best we could manage was to choke it down without gagging and thank our mother, who was grimly determined to keep us well-fed while pretending that she didn’t hate camping with a passion. But we prayed for the days when we had to break camp early and could have cereal for breakfast, eaten right out of those cute little individual packets. The first person alert enough to comprehend what was happening could snag the Apple Jacks or the Cocoa Krispies. To be the last was to be stuck with soggy cornflakes. These were the rare moments when one could fervently wish to be an only child.
Sometimes we would forego camping, when finances permitted, and stay at a Holiday Inn. There was air conditioning, there was a breakfast buffet, and there was blue water in the toilets. For some reason, this fascinated my brother. Personally, I liked writing on the hotel stationery with the little pencils, assuming I could get to these items before a sibling grabbed them. When night fell, we would attempt to sleep-I, as the youngest, squished in between our parents so that I could get the full benefit of Daddy’s snoring, two sisters in the other bed, and my brother and Jackie on pallets on the floor. It was lovely, especially when somebody threw up, which was a routine occurrence. Over the sound of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre that echoed and re-echoed from my father’s vicinity would come a vast, deep, ominous urping noise, warning everyone that they had approximately two and a half seconds to get out of the way.
The family reunion made up for everything, though. The party at Uncle Julian’s was a blast, even when my little cousin Richard, who was so evil that even the grownups were afraid of him, nearly knocked me off the pier. I was minding my own business when he came running at top speed, having caught a fish too small to eat. He hurled an expletive at me while hurling the fish into the water. I asked his older brother, who was, inexplicably, not evil at all, “What is WRONG with that kid?” He shrugged and said, “I have no idea.” It made me realize that I was lucky to have siblings who were merely annoying and bossy as opposed to being potential criminals. My brother and a couple of my cousins helped me catch sixteen tadpoles, but we hastily let them go when Richard, after staring at them for a few seconds, announced, “I think I want to SQUISH them.” I mean, EWWW.
The family reunion itself followed a predictable pattern. One must endure being kissed and squeezed by a variety of grandparents, aunts, and uncles before moving on to tables laden with food. You had to eat fast before too many flies gathered on your potato salad, and you had to make sure you took at least one piece of fried chicken from each aunt so no one would be offended. After gobbling the chicken, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, squash, bread and butter, mashed potatoes, deviled eggs, roast beef, green beans, lima beans, and corn on the cob and washing it down with sweet tea more fit to be poured on pancakes that to quench thirst, you moved on to the seven-layer cake with fudge frosting between each layer. In order to keep from exploding, you then grabbed cousins and siblings and played tag and hide-and-seek in the little cemetery behind the church. My goal was to not let Richard find me, but he always did. Once we were all out of breath from running, we would explore the cemetery and read the inscriptions on the headstones. Later, the grownups rounded us up and everyone went into the church to sing. “I’ll Fly Away” was a favorite, and so was “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, and of course we had to end with “Glad Reunion Day”. My Uncle Robert always did a solo, usually one with a recitation. He liked recitations a lot.
Looking back, I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything. There is something about connecting with extended family that makes you understand who you are and where you came from. As the years went by and more and more people grew old and went on to Glory, the family reunions became a thing of the past. There was too much sadness. Uncle Julian died in a house fire when I was eight, and it wasn’t until years later that I learned that my wonderful uncle who took me riding in his rattly old pickup and told stories of gator hunts was a drunk. Somehow, it didn’t make any difference. I learned a lot of things about my aunts and uncles and cousins as I got older, but those skeletons in the family closet mattered far less than the memory of a group of people with a shared history, four generations of a backwoods Georgia clan, singing gospel songs together in a little country church. As I look at the photograph of us on the pier, three of us grinning while Bobby looks solemn and Dona annoyed at having her picture taken, I think of what we shared as siblings. I think of my dad who took the picture, and my mother who was probably standing somewhere nearby admonishing him to hurry up. I think of what it means to be a family. My father has been gone for almost twenty-five years. My mother is seventy-four. I, the youngest sibling, am closer to fifty than to forty. We have a legacy. It is not a legacy of material wealth, but a legacy of wisdom, faith, and love.
“The family. We were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another's desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together.” ~Erma Bombeck