Friday 31 August 2012

A New Generation

Large gatherings of families seem to have gone by the wayside, particularly in England where small families tend to be de rigour and in the USA where families are spread out all over the 50 states.  But come hell or high water (literally) my family holds an annual reunion in Oakland, Nebraska.  It is a gathering that celebrates our history and our future.  That picture of my family on the top left corner of my blog was taken in a cornfield next to the family cemetary not far from there the last time we visited.

We have a large colection of books of our family tree that belongs to the oldest in each family and gets handed down with each successive generation.  As the chicken is frying, the rolls are rising, and the pies are baking, the younger generation reminds themselves of where we came from and who is who. 

We are a family of Swedish immigrants who settled in Nebraska and farmed the land.  We lost land in times of depression and grew our families in times of prosperity.  Many families had 13 children (or more).  Rarely did all siblings make it to adulthood.

Nearly a decade ago when my granmother died, a few of us pondered whether this gathering would have the momentum to carry on.  The attendance had been declining.  The younger generation weren't really sure who or how they were related.  We didn't know what to say to each other.  When I took my family there last, my grandmother had only been dead a few years and our hearts ached with the pain of her absence.

The oldest of the generations to still survive is my grandmother's youngest sister, Jeanette (Carson) Johnson.  She was the wee little baby in the grandmother's childhood and is now my only link to a woman who had the most influence on the woman I would one day become. 

I love Jeanette.  She talks like my grandmother.  Her hand gestures mimic those of my grandmother's.  She has that wry smile and a look that will put you in your place in a heartbeat.  She had all a family of the most beautiful girls commonly referred to as the Johnson Girls.  Lynn, Janell, Marla and Kristie were the cutest young women you ever set your eyes on.  They had long, shiny hair back in the 70s and I wanted to be a Johnson Girl when I grew up.  Due to the magic of Facebook, we are still largely in touch with each other and I have grown very fond of their daughters and their children.

Jeanette's home is where we go before the reunion.  Just down the road from the town park where we meet, the home is filled with the smells of home baking.  She still makes the best fried chicken, rolls and sour cream raisin pie in the entire world.  Trust me, this is a true statement.  We have been known to have a few family feuds over who took the last piece of pie. We might even have had an argument or two over who took the last of the chicken.

Everyone brings something:  a rice salad, a broccolli bake, a pasta mix, a spicy corn casserole.  the sides always change but the chicken and the pie remains the same.

And the love.  The love remains the same.

This year we saw record attendance.  The room where we gather has changed to a room with air conditioning.  Thank god for small miracles.  But the family doesn't change.  Every year we get older and new babies are born.  One of my favourite bits is meeting the little persons who I hope will carry on this tradition of meeting in the middle of nowhere in the sweltering heat and talking about the good old days as if they were yesterday.  This year we all wore name badges which also included which branch of our family tree we belonged to.  We talked and hugged non stop.

The most heart warming moment for me at the 2012 reunion was when I saw that my son had sat down with my Great Aunt Jeanette.  He held her hand and stroked her arm.  He told her she was soft.  I'm not sure what else transpired between them.  I hope they were stories and I am sure there was love.  He spent time with her just being next to her I hope absorbing some of her wisdom (and maybe the recipe for her sour cream raisin pie, but somehow I doubt even his charm could get that out of her).

One day in the not so distant future, my Great Aunt Jeanette will no longer be there.  Someone else will need to make the out of this world fried chicken and the rolls.  Someone else will need to master the artistry involved in serving up that magic sour cream raisin pie.  I refuse to think about that right now.  Because, for now, we still have her and the gifts her ancestors gave us.  The greatest of those is Love.