Fourth of July afternoon brought mid-Atlantic summer weather at its worst—thunderstorms on repeat and in between, steaming, swampy humidity. My first inclination was to curl up with a good book or binge Stranger Things on Netflix. But a year ago, my cousin planned a family reunion at a park in Maryland, a little over an hour’s drive from where we live. My husband and I looked at the rain pelting the windows, and, since the pet-sitter was coming anyway, decided to brave it. We figured if the party was rained out, we’d go to eat somewhere in Baltimore.
Driving down 83 and onto the beltway, I kept having second thoughts. I am one of those high-functioning introverts who would happily speak before a crowd of 500 rather than walk into a social situation where I may not know people and need to make small talk. But we soldiered on through the rain, arrived at the park and found my family happily gathered under a pavilion. The picnic had been going on for a while, the food looked a little tired and damp, but none of that mattered. Re-connecting with people I have rarely seen, some for almost forty years, was, just like the commercial says, priceless.
These were the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of my mother’s brothers and sister. I could look around and see glimpses of my mother in their eyes, in their gestures, in the way they spoke. I could see my Uncle Morris shucking oysters in our backyard on Thanksgiving, while the adults gathered around to watch, sipping their old-fashioneds. I could see myself terrorized by my older cousins at Hershey Park, way back in the unsafe days of fun houses, bumper cars and the turnpike. As the youngest child of the youngest sibling, I was fair game for all kinds of abuse.
I could hear my Aunt Harriet playing the electronic organ she had in her home when I talked to her great-granddaughter, a talented young teen who loves to sing. I could taste my Aunt Norma’s fudge and feel the chaos of holiday dinners filled with too many over-stimulated children high on Hawaiian Punch. I could hear Uncle Tom’s rumbling laugh as he shot pool or ran the electric train set in his knotty pine basement. And I remember how Uncle Herman, a brilliant retired physician, pulled every string he could to save my mother’s life, and how all of us were forever changed when the irrepressible and beloved Aunt Gussie was the first to pass away, taken by breast cancer at fifty-eight.
As we go through our lives, we carve out new relationships and many of those relationships turn into our family of choice, if not of blood. Unless we live in close proximity, our childhood family fades away until someone like my cousin herds all the cats and insists that it’s time to get together, marvel at the grandchildren and tell the stories that keep us forever bound to each other, no matter how inconvenient or awkward or even if it happens to be in the pouring rain.
We original cousins are older and grayer now, mostly retired and a bit the worse for wear. But we still showed up to sit on rain-slippery picnic benches, eat food from soggy paper plates and watch a new generation of kids become over-sugared, this time from the snow-cone machine. We showed up to remember how much we have in common, how much we miss the parents and aunts and uncles who loved us and who we see reflected in each other’s faces, and how grateful we are to be a family, together once again.