Gathering of the Clan

Thirty years had passed since the last Smith family reunion. Way back in January, when my cousin, Nancy, announced her plans to host a second family shindig, my mother began focusing on that return trip to Massachusetts. At age 96, she was the only one left of her generation on the east coast the other remaining cousin being in a nursing home in New Mexico. Only an invasion of seventeen-year locusts could have kept Mom from jetting back to Easton, Massachusetts.

We flew out of Buffalo without a hitch. There’s something about a smiling, white-haired lady in a wheel chair that brings out the best in people. The fact that she has good humor and a quick wit made every contact easier. The ladies in security loved her all-lavender duds, especially the matching lilac shoes.

Nancy’s son, Doug, fetched us at the airport and a quick 25 miles later we arrived at Nancy’s just in time for some chicken parmesan. It was Thursday evening, two days before the big shebang and the house was already bustling. Five cousins, grateful escapees from the Florida heat, had arrived Tuesday and were busy visiting both their old homesteads and the tourist sites. Five more from eastern Pennsylvania were in residence at a nearby motel. We were meeting, for the first time, charming 50 year-olds who were daughters of cousins I hadn’t seen since grade school. Everyone fell into a comfort zone of easy banter. We spent a lot of time and laughter talking about hijinks at Nana’s house back when we were all very small.

But and here’s the hitch she wasn’t my Nana. Nancy’s grandmother and my grandmother were sisters, so although we are family, Mom and I are “once-removed” as they say. My grandmother, who I never met, died at 26 leaving four little ones who were quickly scattered among family and foster situations. My Mom, luckily, wound up spending many years amidst the Smith family where, as a first cousin, she fit snugly into the middle age range of the nine children. George and Retta’s five boys and four girls were as close to her as brothers and sisters, sometimes moreso than her own. They were all just family – where no lines needed to be drawn. She was closest to Iva, Nancy’s mother.

But now, Iva is gone, as are all the others except Hollis out west. The cousins that gathered last weekend are the sons and daughters of those original nine their own numbers now thinned by advancing years. From my age perspective it was wonderful watching the grandchildren of my peers, while still seeing the visible characteristics of their great-grandparents: just imagine five generations of dimples. They are mostly tall and fair – not beautiful but a wholesome bunch – and I was amazed to notice how many of them had their Nana’s twinkle in their eyes: Bob and Walter, the oldest grandsons, followed by Dorothea and Janice, (I fit in-between them), then George, Pauline, Nancy, Barbie, Bonnie and Lynn all of them smile with their eyes well before their lips move.

The same gene pool that passed down the twinkle also bestowed a good-sized measure of intelligence. I found the quick wit, common sense and serious work ethic equally distributed whether the cousins had worked in their own business or for someone else, or went on to banking, teaching, medicine or the law. What I found, to a person, was strength; each of them had a personal resolve of self-respect, informed opinion and solidity. Not a weirdo or a wimp in the bunch. I found myself proud to be among them.

The next younger generation seems heavily educated toward our hi-tech world and I came away thinking there wasn’t one person there, regardless of age, who I didn’t respect. I guess as families go we were lucky to have inherited that work ethic. When you get right down to basics, the gang was all self-supporting, crime free and sober in fact I noticed that they drank more diet coke than beer or wine.

Some people would say that so much sobriety would make for a dull party, but they’d be wrong with this crowd. Everyone pitched in to help, everyone joined in the story telling and the most pervasive sound was laughter. Someone was always talking to my mother, the matriarch-in-residence, catching up across the decades and I could see that her twinkle was undiminished throughout the sunny celebratory day.

Nancy had brightly colored tee shirts made for each branch of the family Mom, my daughter and I were the hot pink bunch. The enormous reunion cake was topped with a photograph of George and Retta with their original “Gang of Nine” – a family snapshot taken in 1943. One of the younger hi-tech geniuses had superimposed the brightly colored tee shirts onto the old photo designating the head of each aqua, coral, green, pink or orange family. The rainbow gathering enjoyed that cake for a few more days: “Uh-oh, I cut off Byron’s hair,” “I snipped Vivian’s dress,” and “I’m eating Raymond’s sailor hat!” I felt terrible when I realized I was cutting through Nana’s frosting right arm. But the cake was chocolate and good.

I found myself thinking, “Where have these nice people been all my life?” Nancy’s invitation and wide-open hospitality has spawned a desire among more than a few of us to just get to know each other better. The cousins of my generation don’t have another thirty years to wait for Miz Nancy to roll out the red carpet again so I’m pretty sure that mini-reunions will be popping up in the future maybe even one on one.

I would not, however, count my mother out. If any reunion is held where there is lobster available and no impending locust invasion she’ll be there. Look for the purple shoes . . . and the hot pink tee shirt.