Summer Memories – Family Reunion

In our ongoing collection of Summer Memories, M Dawn takes us on a journey to a special place and time.


Summer Family Reunion
M Dawn Thacker

My grandmother cooked the best fried chicken, baked beans, and candied yams. Her potato salad put others’ to shame and her country ham biscuits disappeared from the plate as fast as she could fill it.  Her apple, pumpkin and pecan pies, golden on top and with crusts that flaked under a fork, caused arguments and sometimes fist fights between the grandchildren when the last piece was calling.  We looked forward to Sunday dinners, but counted the days to yearly family reunions.  Grandma fixed all of our favorites for the gathering.

Planning for the reunion began as soon as the last one was packed in.  The family knew right then what date was set and to mark their calendars, because grandma didn’t allow excuses. “It’s the one time in a year, I can hug all of my children and grandchildren on the same day.  It’s my Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter all rolled into one,” Grandma said.  No one disappointed Grandma on Family Reunion day.

Grandpa got the easy jobs. He cut the grass, took the folding aluminum chairs from the shed and washed them,  climbed the attic stairs and rooted around for the coolers and folding tables, repaired the picnic table,  took the grill apart, scrubbed the individual pieces and put it back together again. He folded Grandma’s grocery list, put it in his pocket and loaded the car with her wishes.  Grandma did the hard part.  She cooked.

I spent the week before the family reunion with my grandparents.  It was my favorite job of the summer.  I could feel the excitement wash over me as I laundered the red checked table cloths and inhaled the cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves of baking pies, and held my nose over the double boiler cooking the caramel icing for Grandpa’s favorite cake. I licked bowls and tasted spoonfuls.

I vacuumed, cleaned nooks and crannies, and polished the furniture in lemon oil with the soft cloth Grandma handed me. In the midst of my tasks, I got waylaid by the treasures around me. I took out the picture albums to visit with my ancestors and I played with my mother’s old tin toys in the closet.  I picked over Grandpa’s hand tied fishing flies, choosing my favorite fuzzy hooks and dusted myself with Grandma’s lilac scented power.  Grandma never admonished my meanderings, she would miss me and come looking. I can still hear her chuckling from the doorway.  Grandpa called what I did work. I got paid in ice cream cones and bear hugs.

It never rained on Family Reunion day.  I thought it was magic, how the sky never clouded up.  Even God didn’t want to disappoint Grandma.

Wake up was early that day.  The sun hadn’t shown itself when Grandpa shook my shoulder to get me up. “Tump,” he’d say, “Day’s a wastin’, lots to do before folks get here. Grandma’s got breakfast waiting for us.”  Grandma was already cooking.  Eggs, bacon and biscuits waited for us on the kitchen table and after my biscuits and jelly, I was off to the yard to help Grandpa set up.

After the first vehicle arrived, others soon followed.  Car doors opened, Aunts, Uncles, and Cousins spilled out giving hugs, kisses, hand shakes and  back slaps. Trunks popped up, uncovering feasts packed in picnic baskets, boxes and coolers. Mama pulled up fast in her red Mustang. I almost knocked her back into the seat with my launch into her arms.  We’d been apart for a week.  She always cooked my favorites, egg custard pies, deviled eggs and orange jello salad.

Uncle Garnett rattled up in “Ol’ Liz”, his 1947 black Chevy pickup truck. He untied the extra folding chairs from the bed of it, while my cousins unpacked the horseshoes, badminton, and croquet sets.

Uncle Ed and his gang of three brought the only cooler of beer and hid it under  the boxwood in the side yard, well out of Grandma’s sight.  Uncle Fully and Aunt Margaret unloaded Mary Scott, Lindy and Brunhilda, their old sway-back dachshund from their brand new car. Every year, they bought the latest model of the fanciest car.  Grandpa shook his head, but never said anything to Uncle Fully. Grandma called it “keeping the peace.”

The women bustled to the kitchen to help Grandma with the bowls, pans, plates and platters.  The men gathered at the grill to argue over charcoal readiness, the weather, and baseball.  The kids scattered, ran through the fields, picked flowers, explored the barn, sneaked tastes from covered bowls and got their hands slapped when they got caught.

When the spread covered the table, the family was called together.  Everyone stood shoulder to shoulder in the yard and it got real quiet. Even the birds knew it was  time for reverence.   Grandpa blessed the food.  “We come together today,  oh Lord, to ask your blessing on this family and the food before us.  Thank you for the hands that prepared the meal and for the abundance you have given us.  Thank you for our homes and jobs. Thank you for these children and grandchildren, for their health and  our ability to come together to enjoy each other’s company….”  It went on and on.  I never realized how much we had to be thankful for until I had to wait through the blessing for the food. Grandpa showed me.

We ate until there was no more room.

“Whew, I’m full as a tick,”  Grandpa said

“Can’t hold another bite of anything,” came from Uncle Garnett

“I won’t eat again until next week,” my Aunt Idie announced.

Everyone sat with their legs stretched out and their hands clasped over rounded bellies.  Grandpa ‘rested his eyes’, snoring quietly. Uncle Garnett chewed on a toothpick. Uncle Ed and Uncle Fully sipped at cans of beer.  Grandma and the Aunts divvied up the leftovers to go back into the picnic baskets for the trip home. They washed the dishes, wiped their hands on aprons,  and went back outside to put their feet up.

My mother started the “river” tradition. Every year, one of my cousins prompted it. “Isn’t it time to walk to the river to shake down our food?”   Mechums River was behind Grandma and Grandpa’s house.  It was a long walk, but, to the kids, it was like waiting for the fireworks on the fourth of July, a perfect ending to an exciting day.

Mama gathered all who were game, made us find our shoes,  and off we trudged to the river.  Sliding down steep hills, fording the creek over rocks and fallen logs, crawling over board fences and under barbed wire ones, slipping on leaves in the woods and holding onto saplings to keep our footing, we followed in a line, like colorful bows on a kite tail  behind my Mama.

It took us an hour. By the time we crested the ridge overlooking the river, we’d be hot, sweaty and breathing hard.  The Mechums was long, curving and wide, cutting a path through the grassy pasture bottom.  All nine of us sprinted to the edge of the water, pulled the clothes off  covering our bathing suits and toed off our sneakers. Older children held squirming younger ones back until Mama caught up with us.  When she got there, we splashed into the river, some wading, some diving and others just plunking in bottom first.  “Come on, Aunt Carolyn, get in,” my cousins begged, until Mama finally gave in and joined the cool celebration.

When I hear the song “Over the River and Through the Woods,” I think about my Grandma’s house, and I do think about Thanksgiving, but it’s not the turkey and dressing Thanksgiving that I think about.  I remember our yearly summer family reunion, Grandpa blessing the table, how my Grandparents blessed our family, and my Mama leading us children to the River.

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