Summer is here and the Fourth of July is just a few days away. For those of us here in the south it might be sort of business as usual with barbeques, picnics, and trips to the beach, but when I was growing up in the northeast, we looked forward to the 4th as one of the biggest parties of the year and a chance to catch up with family we hadn’t seen in a long time.
Our yearly family reunion occurred on the weekend of the fourth for as long as I can remember. Everyone gathered at “The Cottage” on the cliffs overlooking Lake Erie starting relatively early in the morning when my Great Uncle Mark would hold morning mass for family members and special guests. From that point on, folks would begin to show up in earnest, coming from all corners of the United States to celebrate our independence and family.
Great Uncle Lee (who owned the cottage along with Aunt Edith) was a great jokester, who along with his brother Aaron, played with the kids, scared the women folk with firecrackers, and generally spread good cheer. Uncle Mark counselled on matters of faith, the heart, and life in general. All while the women (both young and old) worked the kitchen which was full of goodies including ham, meatballs, pickled eggs (my mother’s purple specialty), brownies, slaw, macaroni salad, Jell-O, and all the fixings for Smith's hotdogs cooked over a perfect campfire burning on the cliff right next to the lake.
When I was a youngster, this gathering was all about playing games with my cousins that were able to make it but all along every one of us wanted to grow up so we could be fellow conspirators with Lee and Aaron as they had people jumping with the reports of firecrackers. But instead I can remember heated badminton matches with my Great Aunts Alice and Dorothy; thrilling tether ball games with my brother, and Frisbee throwing on a grand scale. The family softball game was an all-inclusive affair with people of all ages participating in the friendly competition that pitted brother against brother, and husband against wife, but for the life of me I can’t remember anyone actually “winning” a game.
Once the games were concluded, it was time for the half mile trek to the lake for an afternoon swim on the rocky shore. My wife (who grew up in Pensacola) insisted that it wasn’t a beach because of all the large rocks threatening to stub your toes, but for all the youngsters in attendance, it was heaven on earth, right up until the point when a piece of slimy seaweed brushed up against your leg. We loved playing in the cool water and would have stayed in it till our ears turned blue if it weren’t for the lure of Cracker Jacks, single-serving ice cream cups, and watermelon back at the cottage. Things would slow down at this point as folks with long drives ahead of them would begin hitting the road, but most of the older men just found a spot for an afternoon nap in a hammock, sitting in an lounger, or just on a blanket in the shade. My own father had a favorite place in one of two hammocks next to the fire and you were sure to find him there after an excellent meal and wonderful conversation.
A family fireworks display served as the moon-lit closing ceremony and we all gasped as Uncle Lee would light the fuses then scurry away from the dangerous pyrotechnics even though they were pipsqueaks compared to the commercial displays. Regardless of their simplicity, they were awe inspiring to a throng of idolizing youngsters.
We always hit the road wishing the day wouldn’t end, while at the same time we dreamt of hitting a grand slam during next year’s softball game. I look back on years past and think about the wonderful times, the lovely memories, and the people that made it all possible. Most of the older generation have passed on along with a surprising and saddening number of their children, and it just occurred to me that I’m now at the age where I should be throwing firecrackers under the women’s chairs. When did I become the crazy old uncle?
The Fourth of July is a time to celebrate our country, but it’s also time to celebrate the family and create memories that our children will remember for a lifetime. Remember those treasured members of the family that have passed away over the last year and celebrate their lives and the important part they played in your family history. Hit the road, visit some relatives you haven’t seen in a while, and open up a box of Cracker Jacks. You’ll get more out of it than just the prize hidden at the bottom of the box.
Brian “Beastman” Eastman