An American Way to Span Nose Ring to Beatles Gap

The calendar says it's August, and that's true, but it's not descriptive enough, not precise. This is really reunion season.

Clumps of related people from all over the country try to make up for living apart by getting together once in a while, to repair and renew the fabric of family.

In mine, they arrive from eight states, Northwest and Midwest and Southeast and Northeast.

The roster is subject to change, of course. Long absent old-timers become the subjects of campfire legends. There are two new rug rats since the last reunion three years ago, and there's a new second wife, who's sort of on trial. You see, everybody liked the first wife, so No. 2's fate depends to a certain extent on the impression she makes with a tough jury. Two of the other wives will make the call for the rest of the family. It's not intentional, it just works that way.

They will watch the children that No. 2 has brought into the mix, to see whether they've been raised, or merely fed.

A reunion is a chance for young cousins to learn that their nuclear families are parts of a larger molecule, scattered as they may be.

"You hillbillies talk funny," says one set of cousins on the first day.

"Don't call me a hillbilly, you carpetbaggin' Yankee!" says another set.

The War Between the States has been over for 133 years. But honor must be satisfied, and so two nine-year-olds have a minute of brisk exercise, in which North and South each discover that the other is a red-blooded American too. Then they go swimming together.

Teen cousins discover that the boys have gotten really tall in the past three years, and that the girls have a suddenly elegant architecture. That costs them the play-pal relationship of past reunions, and sparks an interest in when kinship becomes thin enough to allow them to be kissing cousins. The mothers vote...Never!

The sing-along doesn't work.The fortysomethings who lead it are miffed that the new generation can't walk their bridge over troubled waters, and doesn't know the lyrics to "Hey Jude" and "Michelle." And the forties insist that nothing written since then has any lyrics.

The sixtysomethings just look smugly at each other, remembering the same comments about Beatles music.

So they try a compromise, something that everybody should know:

"You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.

Know when to walk away, and know when to run."

That's no better.

"It doesn't, like, speak to me," says a teensomething whose mother is silently condemned for "allowing" her to wear a nose ring.

And if achieving harmony is difficult among the people, it's worse among the dogs. Most of them are big dumb happy ball chasers.

But one of the daughters-in-law insists on bringing a snarly little beast despised by the rest of the people, and by the host pooch, who tries to teach the critter some manners.

"Get that cannibal off my dog!" Now it's tongue-biting time, as well as dog-biting time. Time not to say, "If you had a dog instead of a fuzzy rat, this wouldn't be happening."

For a day or so, the tension among these intergenerational, intercultural branches of the family tree threatens to smother the bonding that being there is supposed to produce.

Things, negative things, get noticed. Has Uncle Ralphie always been as self-centered as he seems now? Did you hear the way that kid talks to his mother?

And then the child who threw a tantrum because Uncle Steve wouldn't allow a beach fire when the wind was blowing toward the house makes a breakthrough and does the rite-of-passage swim out to the raft in the lake. A five-year-old catches a fish. All right, a six-inch perch, but still, a real first fish.

A 10-year-old gets to run the outboard motor. One of the fiftysomethings has a warm chat with Miss Nose Ring, and discovers a real person inside the persona.

One of the eightysomethings teaches a campfire crowd to sing "Anne Boleyn." And for three days kids go around with soccer balls under their arms bellowing:

"With 'er 'ead tucked underneath 'er arm, she walks the awful Tower.

With 'er 'ead tucked underneath 'er arm, at the midnight hour!"

And suddenly the magic works. The design is fulfilled. "Family" is reinforced. The cultural and generational walls melt and everybody from rug rat to grandma feels connected to something special. That's what reunions are for.

And I've got three years to repair the sail, replace the lost softballs, and hope somebody else's dog snacks on the fuzzy rat before the next one.

* Steve Delaney, former host of Monitor Radio Early Edition, lives in Milton, Vt.

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