July 5, 2011

In and Out of the Quad-Cities

Contributed by Gail McPike and Toni Hall

Remember Those Summer Family Reunions

First you combine ants (and aunties), uncles, cousins by the dozens and an occasional case of poison ivy with deviled eggs and cold friend chicken. Then you add a dash of sweltering heat and a teaming mess of slobbering toddlers drooling on your new summer outfit. To this mixture, you add a half dozen people who are somehow kin to you – but nobody knows exactly how. And – viola you’ve got yourself an old-fashioned Oklahoman family reunion.

For those of you who have somehow managed to forget this little bit of journalistic trivia, we are native Okies. Loyal daughters of the Sooner State – Oklahoma where the rain comes sweeping down the plains. The same Oklahoma that Rogers and Hammerstein felt needed fringe on top. But they forgot to mention old fashioned Oklahoma family reunions.

Will Rodgers hailed from Oklahoma. We all feel a bit of kindred to him, but his statement, “I never met a man I didn’t like…” indicates he never got a chance to meet our cousin Jenny Jo’s second ex-husband. Ah, the joys of these ceremonial family get-togethers.

Summer solstice and Father’s Day mark the occasion for Gail’s family reunion. A week later, Toni has her own little family gathering. This year it features the 90th birthday party for a dear lady who falls into the “somehow related to us” group. Family reunions seem to be in full bloom this time of year, offering up all the bouquet and variety of a trip to a botanical center. So sit back, prop up your feet and join us as we wander through our own family reunion experiences.

Family reunions, like family itself, seem to extend into the recesses of our memory – past that first doll, past that new puppy. We have pictures of ourselves at family reunions when we were energetic little babies. There we were – cute as buttons – dressed in our finest new sundress flashing a toothless smile and clutching a big old handful of dirt. Our moms and dads were youngsters just barely 30 – showing off their newest additions (which just happened to be us).

We loved family reunions as little kids. It was Disneyland and Christmas all wrapped into one. The day started early. We all loaded into the family’s 1956 Rambler (in Gail’s case) in the cool early morning hours shortly after dawn and drove what seemed like hours down two-lane country highways with names like the “Singing Highway” or the “Washboard Road.” We dozed off and then woke – excitement starting to overtake us. All of this came to a crescendo as we pulled into our grandma’s hometown. Just when we were about to jump out of our skins – we pulled into the little park where the reunion was planned. You probably could hear our little hearts thumping as we scanned the landscape for grandma and our cousins.

This was that once a year rendezvous with favorite cousins, friendships were cemented and plots developed. Each year as we make that trip back we start flashing back to the promises we made and the secrets we shared. These were the times that created bonds that linger on at 50-plus years and counting.

In order to qualify for family reunion status, these events had to feature a number of items. There may have been a checklist hand-written on the back page of granny’s cookbook but we never got to see it. But we swear it existed. And, homemade ice cream was on the list.

Sometime, in the heat of the afternoon, one of the uncles arrived with a giant cooler full of ice an old box full of rock salt and a monstrous hand-powered ice cream maker. The appearance of this gadget drew kids from near and far. The picnic table, which would become the ground zero of ice cream making activity, was surrounded by kids of all sizes.

To our recollection, the process started easy. Everyone got a turn on the handle end of the machine. Cranking away for what seemed to be hours, we kids were certain the stuff had to be ready. Every 10 minutes or so, a grown-up would come over take a turn of the crank – add more salt and say, “Nope, we got a ways to go.” From start to finish it must have taken an hour but to us kids – it seemed like the entire month of July.

When the tasty concoction was finally finished, everyone – young and old – gathered around for a runny scoop of the delicious goop. Served up on flimsy paper plates and eaten with a plastic spoon nothing hits the spot on a summer afternoon like homemade ice cream. And, we can assure you – it’s always better with cousins.

As we jot down the final few words to this message, Gail’s sister Jane is packing the car. Her family holds their reunion in Noel, Missouri on the Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri border every father’s day weekend. As soon as this last word is written – she is heading off on a 10-hour drive to see cousins by the dozens. We hope you take time for a family reunion… we’ll see you in July. We’re off making memories at a family reunion.