Seven kids are playing Fishin’ Time, a children’s board game. I say kids, because they are the age of my daughter, 27, one of the players. Around the table are her boyfriend, her two first cousins who are sisters, one of their boyfriends, another first cousin from another family (my wife has two sisters), and a second cousin.
My sister-in-law and my mother-in-law are creating wild flower arrangements. My brother-in-law (different sister – are you following this?) is in the kitchen, thinking about curry for dinner and the music he will soon play. That sister-in-law is organizing strings of Christmas lights to decorate the party hall. My wife is accomplishing other tasks to prepare for a big celebration tonight of her cousin’s daughter’s recent wedding. Over 50 family members from across the country, Boston to Seattle, have gathered here in remote northwestern Wisconsin for the festivities.
I’m using a loose definition of family here. One pair of sisters are third cousins of third cousins of my children. Another large group is not actually related, except by generations of friendship.
This party demonstrates the real meaning of family – that circle of people who relate to each other through lifetimes of shared experiences. Whenever we gather, stories are told of last year and of decades ago. We want to know the latest news about children’s school and new jobs, and the aches and pains of those who are getting old.
Family is often connected to place, which might be a house or a hometown. In our family a collection of cottages on a little lake in Springbrook, Wisconsin, acts like magnet, bringing far-flung people together every year. Some of the amenities are crude, outhouses and outdoor showers. The views are beautiful, but common in this part of the world; the fishing is just fair, although the former world record muskie was caught nearby. What matters is the sense that family always happens here, that small nuclear families suddenly become bigger here, because we all want to gather in the hopes of seeing each other.
With a family this large, happy and sad occasions often overlap. Yesterday we marked the passing of a woman whose kindness had touched generations of relatives near and distant. We heard stories of her youth and her final years. Later we sang “Happy Birthday” to my son who turned 30, ate pies baked by his cousin, and told different stories of his growing up. Tears and laughter over the course of a full day, different kinds of glue holding us together.
He and one of the wedding celebrants are the oldest of their generation in our branch of the family. More weddings will soon follow, then births and babies. Those kids will grow up with unimaginably fast computers, slangy new expressions, and awful new music, but at Springbrook they will find our tattered T-shirts and look at fading photos. A new generation will figure out who they are by memorizing the complex genealogies of intertwined families, by learning who built these houses and is buried in the cemetery, by experiencing the same outdoor pleasures that each young generation discovers anew – swimming in the lake, seeing loons and eagles, running after dogs, playing kick-the-can.
Mainly they will find each other, different in so many ways, but linked by a shared past that they don’t yet understand. Their parents and grandparents knew each other, meeting here every year, because obligation and love brought them together. They will form bonds which will bring them back to this place, not their home, but the home base of their extended family.
Family is not just a sum of people. It’s a continuing chemical reaction among all the molecules, each person evolving through life by observing, copying, listening to, and sometimes even avoiding the others. In this family these reactions are multiplied and stimulated by the crucible of this place.
We say goodbye each year, certain that family and place will keep us together forever.
This is for Carissa and Alex.