July 20, 2007

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Hoping for reunion, but prepared for drama

Cynthia DewesWhen we consider the phenomenon of the family reunion, we’re bound to notice that some families are more united than others. In several cases, “reunion” may even be a misnomer since getting together is more dramatic than pleasant.

My mom’s family was the dramatic kind. Everything was Sturm und Drang, maybe because they were German.

Grandpa Keller was stern and quiet in a kind of menacing way and, for many years, I was convinced he didn’t like me because he never spoke or smiled. It took years before I realized he was actually a marshmallow inside.

My step-Grandma, on the other hand, was kindly and cheerful. Although she always had a cigarette in her mouth and she liked to drink beer, she was actually very proper. Somehow, she took the sharp edges off Grandpa’s presence.

The problem with her was that she had a daughter from a previous marriage, also a nice woman, but a perceived threat to my mom and her sister. They were afraid the daughter was getting some of their mother’s beloved possessions instead of them. The old Inheritance Devil again, hard at work to divide the family.

Then there was Uncle John, the designated black sheep. He was the only Seabee in WW II to be mustered out with a medical discharge for being stressed. This was kind of amusing because (a.) he never got closer to the actual war than Hawaii and (b.) he was the cause of major stress for the other members of the family, being an unreformed alcoholic and all. Still, he was incredibly inventive and lots of fun.

His wife, my Aunt Midge, could match him in drinking any day. And did. I loved to spend the night at their house because I didn’t have to worry about spilling anything, and I could stay up as long as I liked. Besides, Aunt Midge would make taffy at all hours just for us kids, and meals if she felt like it.

The dynamics of stern Grandpa K. and his son’s family provided years of drama for the rest of us, and getting together was always an adventure. There was even a period of time when no one would speak to my aunt and uncle, although an exception was made for my three cousins.

My dad’s family, on the other hand, met for genuine reunions. They actually liked each other and failed to see the motes in their relatives’ eyes. If they were upset with something, they would talk about it and get it over with. My poor mother, used to conspiracy theory and intrigue, never quite trusted her in-laws’ ingenuousness.

My paternal reunions have grown large, thanks to my dad’s large number of siblings. The meals are equally large, always featuring homemade rolls, baked beans, hamburger hot dishes and Norwegian favorites such as krumkake, rosettes and sometimes lefse. Some younger relatives have added fruit, raw veggies and mysterious healthy concoctions, which are snapped up just as quickly.

Most of all, there’s the visiting, the identifying of which kid belongs to which grandparent, and the passing around of babies. No child under the age of 1 ever touches the ground at these gatherings, but is handed from admirer to admirer. There’s always at least one little guy, exhausted by all the attention, sprawled dead asleep on a quilt somewhere.

We should treasure families. I like to think each one is God’s family in miniature.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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