As we traveled home after a recent family reunion, the always asked question came forth as the air conditioning in the car took hold, and we relaxed for the drive home.
“What was your favorite part of the day?” My son’s answer was quick and to the point: “The food!”
Those of you fortunate enough to participate in summer family gatherings may nod your head in agreement; the food is always delicious, and it is always the same.
We’ve been enjoying our get-together for many years…time enough to take me, a baby boomer, from young adulthood to less young adulthood. I love to cook and bake when I have the time-which is rarely-but I do know how. Still, my mom and her brothers and sisters are the backbones of this picnic. When we first started gathering together they fried the best chicken, made the most delicious beef barbecue and homemade noodles and baked the most scrumptious pies and cakes. They still do. Their children (my generation) participate by “filling in” with munchies, side salads, deviled eggs, and cookies. The picnic gets more important every year. It is a precious and rare event in these busy times for a large family spread out across the United States to take the time and make the effort to return to the farm area where my grandparents lived.
My husband’s answer to my “favorite part” question was one I wouldn’t have predicted, but it pleased me. He said spending time talking with my brother, whom we seldom see, was his best memory of the day. The two of them used to work on old cars together in their teen-age years. But marriage, kids and careers have taken us far apart in miles. As they shared their lunch and a losing game of horseshoes, they reconnected.
Horseshoe pitching is a favorite pastime at our picnic, but changes have occurred over the years. We girls may now take part, and several of the ladies in the family did very well in this year’s competition.
Volleyball is set up for anyone who can endure the heat in the big open yard next to the farmhouse, and I seem to have become the activities chairperson for the younger set. A few years ago, it was suggested that the children needed some activities after everyone had eaten and adults were catching up with each other’s news. Having one of the youngest children at the picnic, I decided to plan some events, and no one has fired me yet. I purchased some potato sacks from a feed store for sack races. And although the idea was to give the kids something to do, some mighty hairy legs climb into those sacks for the competition!
A water balloon toss seemed ideal to follow a hot, itchy sack race, so young and old pair up, and we toss ice-cold water balloons back and forth, making the distance between partners greater after each successful throw. When the last pair is left unscathed and declared winners, everyone scrambles to get the rest of the water balloons and pick their favorite personal target.
Our last annual kid event is a good, old-fashioned scavenger hunt. Young children pair up with an older teenager or a willing adult and search for items around the farm. Because it’s the one time a year a youngster may see his great uncle or his mother’s cousin’s son, signatures have become a fun part to our hunt. For instance, a child may need the signature of some relative who drove three hundred miles for the picnic, or a signature of a country music lover, or a signature from someone who water skis.
“Well, do you want to know my favorite part of the picnic, guys,” I piped up, wanting my turn now. In unison, they both replied, “Linda.” It’s the same every year for me. My favorite part is spending time with a special cousin.
Our story goes way back to when we were little girls from the city playing in our grandpa’s hayloft, or finding another litter of newborn kittens behind the barn, or learning how to milk a cow, or swimming in the creek while the guys teased us about water moccasins coming our way. She is my older cousin by just enough years to make me idolize her. Her family moved often during her youth, so whenever we knew they’d be back in Illinois and visiting Grandma and Grandpa at the farm, we’d drive down to spend time with them. She always brought the clothes she had outgrown the season before, and I was always the proud recipient. My mom once took me aside and remarked that if there came a time when I didn’t want to wear Linda’s hand-me-downs that were all right, for I certainly didn’t have to wear them. That time never came.
When I was in high school Linda came to stay with us on weekends for several years while she finished nurses’ training and university course work here in Champaign. All our hopes, our dreams, our disappointments, our secret wishes were shared as only best friends or sisters can share them.
Years have passed. We have realized many of those dreams and have supported each other through a few of life’s disappointments. Each year I can’t wait to see her again. We try to squeeze a year into a few hours. We take a walk down a hot country road just to find some time to ourselves before we return to the picnic and put on the many hats we wear of mom, wife, daughter, sister, niece, cousin and aunt. Families are wonderful. They are to be cherished and cultivated and enjoyed whenever possible.