Our grandparents would be so proud

Friday, August 15, 2008

Another family reunion has come and gone. Fortunately, we had much of Sam A. Baker State Park to ourselves, probably because everyone else thought the second Saturday in August might be unbearably warm and humid. But the weather was about as good as it gets during a Missouri summer: moderate temperatures, low humidity.

The food this year was exceptionally good. Most of the dishes were home-prepared. I didn't see a single KFC container.

Some of my cousins of the fairer sex took charge of arranging the potluck spread, designating areas for main dishes, vegetables and salads and desserts. This left the long picnic table available for eating and talking, though a few of us gathered around a card table.

While no one said it in my hearing, there was a certain sadness this year, the result of absent faces that have been a part of these get-togethers over the 60-plus years I've been in attendance. This was the first year without any of our parents, the children of Hans and Millie. There is only one aunt left, and she was unable to attend.

Attendance was good this year, with the children of cousins I hadn't seen for years and grandchildren of cousins attending their first reunion. In numbers, this year's gathering was about what shows up at funerals, which occur too often these days. Just think: We went almost 50 years without a funeral in the immediate family, and then ... .

Every one of my kinfolk has, now that our primary sources are virtually gone, developed a keen interest in genealogy and old family photos. Every year I see images of someone in the family that I don't recall ever seeing before. "Make a copy," I say.

The Big Topic at the reunion was retirement. All my cousins and I are at or near that magic age. One of my cousins retired several years ago to his beautiful farm. I grew up on a farm, so I know that in his case his workload didn't get any lighter. Another cousin, an architect, started working four days a week this year. Another wonders what he would do if he quit his job. Another said, "If you're worried about that, you're not ready to retire."

All this talk about retirement, but so little boasting about accomplishments. That's in our genes, I think.

But look. All of my cousins have done well for themselves. Among my cousins and their offspring we have lawyers and entrepreneurs and doctors and civil servants and stockbrokers and middle management and teachers. Most of us have managed to avoid the long arm of the law because we work hard, obey the rules and love our children.

Whenever I get together with my cousins and their families, I am overwhelmed by how successful and good-looking we are. That's not boasting, just fact. One of my cousins was, many years ago, a successful model. Plenty others could have been. I look around at the crowd under the oak trees at the state park on the banks of Big Creek, the creek our parents knew so well in their youth, and wonder what Hans and Millie would think of us.

Most of us hadn't been born before our grandparents died. We only know them from the stories our parents told us, and there were plenty of disagreements on that score.

We've all seen the handful of remaining photographs of our grandparents, which tell us nothing about how they walked, what their voices sounded like, what made them smile, what they did when someone needed scolding.

Was our grandmother a hugger? We know she loved her son and five daughters, but did they get all the hugs they deserved? It's only been in recent years that the women among my cousins have adopted hugging as the standard greeting.

Good for them. This world would be a better place if there were more hugging.

The men in my family do not hug each other. They never will. Trust me. So we hug by proxy.

Another year. Another reunion. We grew up without our grandparents. Now our parents are absent. Life goes on.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editorial-page editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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