Family Reunions

I always suffer from emotional hangovers in the wake of family reunions

I always suffer from emotional hangovers in the wake of family reunions, but I am not exactly sure why. I love my family, warts and all. I look forward to the times we can all get together in the same city. Around the core of usual suspects buzz an ever-changing crowd of lovers, in-laws, friends, and hangers-on, so it is anything but boring, and, at the very least, the potential for people-watching and overhearing interesting conversations is great.

One of my duties for family gatherings is to provide the soundtrack for the event. I spend hours burning CDs, trying hard to include everyone's tastes. In my typical musical anal fashion, I attempt to include both "slow" and "fast" songs from genres diverse as classic country, contemporary county, pop, rap, R & B, easy listening, classic rock and gospel. If someone doesn't like the song that's playing, within 3 to 4 minutes the odds are good that something better is just around the bend. I must say that I'm usually successful, though the "young 'uns" often whine there isn't enough rap ("Play some L'il Wayne!") and the old timers bitch about any rap ("Turn off that crap!"). If I'm lucky enough for alcohol to play a part in the proceedings, truces and alliances form, and, before you know it, old and young alike are doing the "Cha-Cha Slide" or grinding to "Baby Got Back." The piece de resistance is when everyone sings along to "Sweet Home Alabama" or "Friends in Low Places." Good times.

No question, the food is always excellent. One of my nieces makes it her mission to calculate the amount of food a person eats in proportion to how close to "blood kin" that person is. For example, if the mother and step-father of one of our cousin's fourth wives happens to hit the buffet a number of times, it causes a minor sensation. And if a family unit brings generic or off-brand chips or soft drinks, these cost-cutting infractions do not escape notice, either. It is okay, however, to bring store-bought deserts, provided they are in copious quantities; it is tacitly understood that not everyone can prepare a good desert.

If the reunion is at a family member's house where there is a pool, a number of body image issues surface. Certainly, the young folk bring their suits (and girlfriends and boyfriends), so there is no dearth of nubile young things in bikinis and their toned and tanned male counterparts prancing, posing, and doing the requisite "cannonballs" and "can openers." This, of course, sends the over forty set into fits of self-doubt and recrimination. Many of us end up sitting around the pool dangling our legs in the inviting water, waiting for sundown or the kids to move on to their other commitments. If it's dark enough and if we have enough beer, we'll suit up and quickly slip into the water for our own furtive fun, man boobs and fat female asses be damned.

Smoking presents other potential trouble spots, as my family members either chain-smoke or eschew the habit altogether (cue "Drugs or Jesus" by Tim McGraw), so areas of clean and second-hand smoke dot the yard like tiny neighborhoods. Occasionally a pungent (and to some, stinky) cigar manages to make its way to all nostrils, but that is rare.

The digital age has brought out photographers in my family. Ironically, the babies and we old-timers get a lot of attention. And by "old-timers," I do not necessarily mean the chronologically oldest family members present. At 51, I'm the youngest of the remaining children of my late parents, the founders of our feasts, as it were. It's bizarre to be herded together with my brother and two remaining sisters while the many cameras snap away; I cannot help but think that the eager photographers wonder if this is the last time we will all be together. Intellectually, I understand their interest, but on a personal level, it's slightly maudlin. "Get them together while we still can." "Who knows who won't be here at the next family reunion?" This is probably the root of my family reunion hangovers. Life is ephemeral, and nothing brings this home to me quicker than getting everyone together where comparisons are inescapable. I miss my parents. I miss my sister, Audrey. I dread losing Tommy, Carolyn, or Frankie. I don't want to die anytime soon. I don't want us to be forgotten as our children, cousins, nieces, and nephews intermarry, have children, and grow exponentially and emotionally from our family's center.

But we continue to gather. I've changed from the teenager who couldn't wait until my mother wordlessly let me know that I had stayed long enough to fulfill my familial duty to the last one to leave when all have packed up and driven off into the night. I am reminded of the final words of Herman Melville in his peerless American novel Moby Dick: " . . . and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."


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