Monday, May 19, 2014

An Appalachian Tale: Family Reunion

Family reunion. The very words stir a stew of emotions in me, floods of memories that bubble just beneath the surface of my consciousness suddenly pop to the top and inundate my mind. I know that people from other regions - countries - cultures have regular gatherings of friends and relatives, but there is a special atmosphere that permeates a family reunion in the southern United States, and especially in the Appalachian Mountains of southwest Virginia. I am not sure how long the reunion tradition will survive - the children and grandchildren my generation are raising seem to derive less pleasure and gratification from the inundation of relatives and stories that begin with "Do you recall the time ...".

For me, there are different types of reunions, different times and occasions that bring people together for food, fellowship and familial bonding.

There are seasonal occasions - Thanksgiving, Christmas/New Year, Easter, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day.

There are commemorative occasions - weddings, births, specific birthdays, anniversaries, funerals.

There are planned reunions, bringing relatives from far and wide together, maybe once a year, every two years.

There are spontaneous reunions - all of a sudden you realize that 10 or 12 people you are related to are all in easy driving distance at the same time and you pick a location and, voila, reunion.

Both sides of my family, the Smiths and the Slades, were and to some extent still are, excellent at reunions. I am going to share a few memories of reunions from both sides, because they are both similar and different.

The Smith Reunions Remembered
My father was one of eight children, and three of his sisters lived out of town. He was also 17 years older than my mother, so my aunts and uncles had grandchildren that were my age. When children and grandchildren came home to visit from out of town in the summer, we would have a reunion at my grandparents house, later when they had passed we would usually gather at my Aunt Ger's house. 

Grandaddy Smith's birthday was the first week in August, and we had reunions several times around that time of the year to celebrate his birthday. I specifically recall having birthday parties/mini-reunions for him in Narrows a few times, after he had gone into the nursing home there following the death of Granny and his subsequent aging and failing health.

Earlier, before Granny Smith passed, we would all be at their house. This was especially convenient for my immediate family because we lived just one house down from Granny and Granddaddy. They had a really large yard, plenty of room for lawn chairs and picnic tables and impromptu games of tag or hide and seek. They also had a wonderfully landscaped yard, off of an impressively sized back porch. There was a cherry tree, underneath which was a swing. At least once I remember my Aunt Zelma cooking a giant pot of chicken chow mein for us to feast upon. I know we ate other food, a lot of it. Salads, burgers, hotdogs, chicken, cakes, pies ... but when you are young the food takes a backseat to the memories of people. Except the chicken chow mein, I always remember that!

Uncle JT and Aunt Connie lived on a farm and we had a few family get-togethers there. Uncle JT had a stocked fish pond, and we would catch and release fish and thought we were grand fishermen! It was there that we also made homemade ice cream with a hand cranked ice cream freezer - the best ice cream in the world, but exhausting to crank at the end of the process. 

Aunt Ger also lived within walking distance of our house, and I remember the family times at her house the best. She too had a large yard, and lots of outdoor sitting and eating spaces. One of my favorite pictures of Daddy is from a reunion we had there. Aunt Ger, along with Aunt Zelma, Aunt Susie and Uncle Norman all hosted indoor family gatherings at one time or another - fall/winter weather meals. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Eve - more formal eating but still love and laughter flowing right along with endless cups of coffee and glassed of iced tea.

We had cousins (the Vernons) who lived in Texas and when they came to visit it was usually in the Autumn, for the glorious fall leaves I imagine. The family time with them was more intimate, usually at Aunt Susie's. The conversations and eating would last late into the night, everyone hating to leave because it would be so long before we could see them again.

Our Smith reunion is now called the Cousins Reunion, and we will be gathering on July 12 in my hometown at a Methodist Church. I am going to try my darndest to be there. I think some of my relatives from Florida will be coming!

The Slade Reunions Remembered

My mother grew up with two brothers, but both of her parents came from large families and the reunions for the Slade branch of my family were well attended. Aunts and Uncles from both the Cundiff (MawMaw) and Slade (PawPaw) families would be in attendance. I recall one reunion in particular, I was in my early teens. There were many people there, and I am not sure they were all kin. 

[All of our reunions for both sides would have attendees who were not relatives, but close and dear friends that were like family. Mountain people are flexible like that. We take into our hearts, homes and families people and call them Aunt, Uncle, Cousin, Granny and never think twice about it.]

My sister and I were playing croquet with Uncle Henry Bowen's daughters, Betty and Barbara. I do not remember the pairing, but the one I was partnering with and I both got the giggles and were acting silly. Virginia Carol and the other sister got so mad at us, especially when we won the game. This was in the summer, and there were torrential rains accompanied by thunder and lightening as well. We played and talked and ate watermelon and sweets and hamburgers far past dusk. This particular reunion was held at the home of friends (could have been distant cousins - I am not sure. That is another wonderful thing about being from a mountain town or community, you have lots of distant relatives.)

Many of the Slade memories for me center around the farm, and it was sold and my grandparents moved to "town" when I was 12. The farmhouse had a big front porch, loaded with chairs, many of them rocking chairs, where one could sit and see forever it seemed. MawMaw was an excellent cook, and it seemed as though she fed half of the community on Sunday after church. The adults would eat in the dining room, and the children in the kitchen. There were large tables and ample seating in both rooms. She made delicious cakes, and the meat and vegetables both were always from their own bounty. But her breads - oh my! Cornbread, biscuits, yeast rolls - she was a master at breads.

Since my grandparents passed away in 1986, my brother Steve has taken the mantle of patriarch of the family and has been generous with his time, and home, to try to keep our family bond strong. We have had a few reunions at picnic shelters, but the times we gather at his home have been memory makers for sure. His son and daughter both value family, so I anticipate we will continue to stay in touch with those dear to our hearts, both near and far. 

I may not have always been the best and most attentive daughter/sister/cousin/aunt I could have been, but I promise you, I appreciate and treasure these people and these memories so very much. They are a big reason I am able to sit here and have good memories to share, and that is a gift beyond measure. 

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