When I was a teenager I loathed family reunions.
“How is school?” “Where do you plan to go to college?” “Do you have a boyfriend?” Questions that have no real answers. Adolescent hell.
I loved my aunts and uncles, and even when I was at my most socially awkward, “I hate it,” “I don’t know,” and “hell no” seemed like dismissive answers, and would have for sure gotten me in trouble. I opted for “Fine,” “I don’t know — University of Maryland, probably,” and “Uh, no.” Simple and marginally true.
Our summer picnic on the Chesapeake Bay and the yearly Christmas party were non-negotiable family obligations, however. And even at 15 I knew that these huge events — and my family — were too important to skip, no matter how I felt about it.
My grandfather was the oldest of 18 siblings born over a span of 20 years. No one in his generation moved from the DC area, so these gatherings were glue for them and their children, and eventually my generation, the great-grandchildren. I spent a lot of time with my grandfather and my grandmother — a girl from their original neighborhood who had known the family since she was small. So I went where they went, and that meant I showed up for family events.
To answer the usual “Hey, did you know your family is really big?” thing: No, I don’t know why my great-grandparents had that many kids — 10 boys and eight girls, born between the end of one world war and the start of another — besides the most obvious of reasons that they could and they wanted to. I ignore the jokes about large families that naturally follow whenever I share this fun fact, because the size of this family was matched, in my eyes, by its awesome.
They were lined up by height at the U.S. Post Office in wartime for a family news photo. They made it into a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! TV spot. The Washington Post did a feature on them a few years ago when the original family row house in Southeast DC changed hands. My surviving aunts and uncles stopped by to show how a clown car-worthy number of kids could fit into a shoebox, essentially. The answer was always the same, no matter what words anyone used: with love and precision.
It never seemed odd. There were just a lot of us, all descended from the same people. My 40-something self can confirm what even my cranky teenaged self knew: my grandfather — the best man I knew — and his siblings, were good, smart, accomplished people. They cared about their communities, their work, their church and their families. They also made good food and they were nearly all loud talkers, as well as quick-study card players and champion horseshoe competitors.
Every humid Sunday in August, I’d watch them dish out barbecue, fried chicken, beer and an endless supply of Kool-Aid to the kids. My uncles grilled and talked and played horseshoes. My aunts smoked cigarettes under umbrellas and argued politics — a trait atypical of their generation — between putting ketchup on hamburgers for grandchildren and managing an airtight kitchen set-up and cleaning operation rivaling a military installation. I unfortunately learned nothing about housework, but I picked up most of what I know about my love for a good political debate from listening to my aunts those summers.
We didn’t have social media for easy facial recognition, so the kids learned each other’s names by playing yard games and just hearing them yelled across the yard by one grandfather or another. Even if we saw each other only twice a year we’d know faces. My Aunt Dorothy stalked us all with her camera, dumping developed prints for each family on the table at our annual Christmas party, ages marked in her sprawling script on the back.
It may seem easy to get lost in a crowd of 100, but our aunts and uncles let us know they knew us individually by the questions they asked. Most teenagers feel awkward, but I was an anxious, insecure kid in an extrovert’s talkative body, and to be noticed meant everything. Between these big events, my relatives attended our graduations and weddings, and dropped cards in the mail when they couldn’t be there. In our case, “big” never meant disconnected.
Now well past my cranky teenaged years, I don’t hang out with most of my relatives very often. There is no picnic anymore, a loss I feel viscerally all year long, from just that one missing day. The Bay house is gone, as is the physical presence of my grandfather and my grandmother and many of my aunts and uncles who have passed on. But a contingent of this still-growing family goes on vacation together to a stretch of Carolina beach every July. The faces are different but there is still a unified sea of tents, card games, political talk and crossword puzzles. Now, I see them in Facebook photographs — no need to wait for prints dropped on a holiday party table.
We mostly connect in person at Christmas, in an enthusiastic Facebook group, at weddings and, unfortunately, more funerals. Most importantly to me, there are cousins of all ages in an extended, far-flung family. We are connected in person and online. It’s different, but it’s good, and this generation has no idea what it’s like to show up twice a year to barely-recognizable faces, known only for our common thread, the powerful figures of our grandparents.
I’d like to give the youngest ones the picture I have: the sound of my aunts screaming a series of names from the back steps of a house that it’s impossible to imagine ever held 20 people without bursting at the frame. I’d share the delicious freedom of walking from that yard a few blocks to the beach on the Bay, a relative non-event that felt like an exotic trip to this teenager.
I can’t give that away, but I like that I have it. And I appreciate and honor my tie to more than a hundred people that exists because two people happened to have 18 kids. Every summer, in particular, it feels as real as I have always known it is.