July of 1988 marks the first chorale rehearsal my cousins and I ever had. Little did we know that twenty three years later, we would still be singing. This is the first time I’ve actually put words to the experience that makes my family reunion so…well…humorous? remarkable? interesting? It’s hard to think through family when I’ve stepped into form and role so naturally and for so long. It’s been like this for decades. I’m 27. Wait no I’m 5. Please, let me be at least 14? I think it’s common for the persistence of ritual to replace the ebb of reflection. Rules are rules without much reason but not necessarily wrong, either. They’re as certain and as arbitrary as “assigned” seats at the dinner table. And so, we sit.
So, this year, Luke was on my arm, my husband coming to our family cottage in the woods. We call it “Opa’s Place.” It sits on the end of Butternut Road, facing Long Lake in Waupaca, Wisconsin. We drive up the crumbly gravel road, and the front of the house looks as plain, brown and unassuming as it ever did. Luke doesn’t know that around the back, beyond the screened-in porch is a piney lake-view. The cottage nearly outdoes itself, like one of those petite little girls that knocks your socks off when she sings like an opera star. My cousins, aunts and uncles pour out of “Opa’s Place.” I see them, streaming out by family. Everyone is smiley, excited and good grief, my once very small boy cousins are very, very tall. I squint and find myself, remembering for a moment, what it was like to grow so much in the span of eight months. I think I felt embarrassed and certainly didn’t’ like it when people told me I was “becoming a young woman.” Note, I will not say, “you are so grown-up looking.”
Here I am brooding, and Luke has already stepped out of the minivan, shaking everyone’s hand like a regular politician. A hairy one that says “hey man.” For me, this would not be a political move…but for him, it works. My family, about sixteen of them at this point, (some are out on the boat, there are 25 total), circle around us and Luke and I are in the middle.
“Names…names… Names are overwhelming…heaven help you…I know it’s a lot at once…don’t feel pressure…did Sarah prepare you for this…you know Becky…that’s Jenny…she goes with Becky…yes, Jenny.”
These pleasantries buzz and hum over our circle and I know it’s not possible everyone really is making eye contact with everybody all at once. Luke’s handling everything like a champ and I feel so excited for him to know new parts of me. My nostalgia fades to the here and now. Luke and I together here is new, sweet even, like children discovering just how golden a summer afternoon really is.
The day and a half we were there was easy and fun, and the evening before our departure came time for the much anticipated family song. In 1988, we began singing songs about this reunion in Waupaca. At the time, there were only five grand-daughters and we had a grand time–being oogled over and praised for our clever cuteness. We even shopped for dresses and made a fashion show out of it. Before you knew it, we became regular Von Trapp family singers. The tradition was officially “tradition-ed” and we haven’t looked back. Whatever the year’s milestone’s called for- well, we sang it. For example, 1994 was:
“We are so excited to be gathered here this way, when all the girls will be in line to catch the bride’s bouquet, when it’s time to say ‘I-Do’ we hope to hear Aunt Dorcey say, ‘You Betcha’ on her wedding day!”
“Fifty years of love! Blessed by God above! Fifty years of love and still gr-ow-ing. Four children all grown up! Thirteen grand-kids and a pup! Con-grats on…fifty years!”
I could sing every one for you- minus a couple over the most recent years…my enthusiasm has waned some as I’ve entered my upper twenties. My sweet and thoughtful cousins are the ones who make the music happen. I did, perhaps naively, believe that marriage was a rite of passage so that my husband and I might join the audience rather than the singers. I was wrong. I sang.
Luke stood up there with me and we shimmied to the beat of The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea.” I even had a solo that went like so:
“He is the one,” she told us, then Luke and Sarah, wed! Next Jen and Zack will marry, and we’ll be 15 instead!”
This was a first. The best part was my cousin, Jeff imitating a very Rastafarian Sebastian. Hey, save my 11 year old cousin, there’s not so much cuteness going on in the group anymore. No more smiles or dimples or the pure kind of little people singing. Thank you Jeff for making light of the whole thing, because let’s face it, it is kind of funny.
It’s not like he really had a choice, but it felt so good for Luke to fit right into my family-story in the same way he fit right into my life-story. He is the new guy, but his presence is so easy, that it’s old and new- just like the sameness of the tradition easing in and out of each, new, summer.
Next year, he might just have a solo.