Time was, the words “family reunion” meant get-togethers with my aunts and uncles and my 20 — yep, 20! — first cousins on my mother’s side. I can offer no conclusive reason for the exponential number of offspring on that side of the family, but I have theories: Almost all of us were born in the ’50s, which was, of course, the tail end of the baby boom, and my uncles and aunts were patriotically contributing to that boom. Three of the five Mclean children who had families (one brother was killed in the war, and another remained a bachelor) settled in small eastern North Carolina towns — Clinton, Murfreesboro, St. Pauls — where entertainment was so limited that — oh, never mind, you know where this is headed.
My passel of cousins doesn’t get together much these days — mainly, and sadly, we only see each other for funerals — and when we do, it no longer resembles the Atlanta airport at Thanksgiving. Now that all my aunts and uncles are gone, family reunions have shifted from gatherings the size of the National Hollerin’ Contest to just the five of us Parker children, our parents, and the four grandchildren.
My siblings scattered as soon as they finished college. My older brother has lived in Anchorage for nearly 30 years, my older sister in Seattle for a little longer. My younger sister spent a few years in Africa, came home to North Carolina long enough to get her doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, then landed a job at the University of Michigan. In Ann Arbor she met and married a confirmed Midwestern boy, and a few years ago she took a job at the University of Iowa, where it seems likely, given her passion for Big Ten athletics, she will remain at least until her retirement. Another older brother lived in Raleigh and Durham before settling in Chapel Hill as an attorney at UNC.
I left North Carolina for three years in my mid-20s for graduate school in Virginia, and I now spend some of my time in Texas, but I’ve worked at UNC Greensboro for the last 22 years and shall likely be there until I show up in my bedroom slippers, unable to locate my classroom.
Because we are so spread out, it takes planning to get us all together. Thus, the annual family reunion. It’s never been referred to as such — we prefer to call it our “beach trip,” even though in the past it has taken place in other locales: Hawaii, which I was able to attend because it was during my spring break, and Tuscany, which I had to miss because it took place in the middle of the semester. These days we stick close to the Triangle, where my parents now live. My parents are in their late 80s and unable to travel long distances, but even if they were up to it, I believe we’d still head for the beach. Once, a few years ago, we rented a house just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, but because we saw more than one bear in the yard and rarely ventured outdoors unless it was to bolt to our car for a trip into Asheville, I don’t count this anomaly.
Our annual reunions are not always the same — there are always surprises, like the time we rented a beachfront cottage that, in the real-estate catalog, showed a beautiful view of the ocean, only to find out upon arrival that another cottage had been built smack in front of ours, blocking the view — but they share five characteristics.
1. The announcement
Because my older sister has spent the majority of her career running biotech companies, which involves not only endless clinical trials but also dealing with federal agencies, namely the FDA, she is a master at organization and planning. Somehow she did not inherit the procrastination gene that some of us (at this point in the sentence, I should really switch to first-person singular)inherited, and she often begins the discussion of next summer’s reunion before we’ve even packed up to go home.
We don’t always rent the same cottage, or even vacation at the same beach, so the announcement is followed by the narrowing down of locations. My idea of an ideal beach is one where I can get in a daily triathlon. The roads should have wide shoulders, if not a bike lane. There must be a place to run other than the beach, because every serious runner knows that the beach itself, being cambered, is hell on your ankles. Finally, the ocean: I love to swim in the sea and I am a strong swimmer, but I am used to pools, where strong currents occur only near diving boards. My siblings seek a relatively un-eroded beach they can walk on. By “walking,” I mean from pier to pier, or down to the inlet. They walk for miles, while my own beach-walking is confined to trips from the house to the ocean.
Because three out of the five of us work in academia, a profession given to endless meetings during which, more often than not, no outcome is reached, and because both of my brothers are lawyers, another profession given to sustained negotiation, this part can take some time. Which is why I have, in recent years, stayed out of it. I have long since come to accept that it is difficult to take seriously the opinions of a man whose idea of a vacation is to spend four hours working out.
My siblings are aware of my priorities and, because they do not share them, my voice is not among the loudest. Let me say here that I realize how whiny this sounds, but what would a family reunion be without one or more members of the family (usually, admittedly, me) complaining that no one is listening to them? Familial tension is as much a part of these vacations as suntan oil and shrimp boils. To crib from Jane Austen, it is a truth universally recognized that, no matter your age, family dynamics of your youth surface when you reunite with your siblings. Rivalries, hurt feelings, disagreements over the best way to devein a shrimp: It’s just a part of the experience.
2. The trip down
Much of my youth was spent jockeying for the best seat in the station wagon on family excursions. Because I am next to youngest, I often landed in the Very Back. Now, being one of the two siblings based in North Carolina, I am often called upon to drive. One of the ways in which I extact my revenge for spending all those years looking not at what lay ahead, but at the past, is filling my car with the sporting equipment required of my daily “training.”
Still, there’s always room for at least a couple of out-of-staters, though whosoever shall be transported in my vehicle shall be subjected to my music at the volume I choose.
3. Eating to survive
My younger sister married a semiprofessional chef who does not care for the heat of the beach during midsummer, and though we all love him for his personality and his humor and his abiding generosity, the fact that he could marinate a flip-flop and we’d all fight over who got the flip and who got the flop does not hurt his position in the family. But he should not be expected to cook every night, so over the years we have come up with a system. Breakfast and lunch, we fend for ourselves, but dinner duties are rotated among us.
When my turn rolls around, there are no surprises, since I know how to cook only two things besides baked potatoes and frozen corn: tuna marinated in soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and brown sugar; and an orzo salad, the recipe for which I clipped from the only copy of Bon Appétit I ever read. (Long wait at the doctor’s office.)
I won’t say there’s a competition among us to outdo each other, but if there were, we Parkers would lose to the in-laws. My brother’s long-term partner, Robert, is also good in the kitchen, as is my sister-in-law, Jane, who can flat out mass-assemble some spring rolls. Actually, none of the in-laws much care for sitting around on the beach slathered in lotion reading novels or talking trash all day long, so it’s safe to say that they married into a family happy to take advantage of their culinary expertise, especially if it means more beach time for us.
4. Control of the remote
I confess again that I don’t lack for things to do at the beach, and am far too busy working out to get involved in various trips to nearby historic sites or putt-putt courses or, once, The Rice Museum in Georgetown, South Carolina. (In fact, I did give up my afternoon bicycle ride for the rice museum, as who in their right mind would not be curious as to how they could get an entire museum out of a grain of rice?) But it has been known to rain during our week together — more than once, in fact — and a beach cottage can be a dreary and claustrophobic space when the coast is socked in with a three-day front.
Sister-in-law Jane always brings along a jigsaw puzzle, the assembling of which she shared with my daughter, Emma, when Emma was younger and, more recently, with David and Robert’s daughter Hallie. There’s always Scrabble, and all of us are readers of the type that might be called voracious, especially my father, who, even when he’s not on vacation, devours four books on a particularly slow week.
And then there is televised tennis. It took me several years to wonder if the dates chosen for our vacation did not purposefully coincide with whatever tennis tournament takes place in mid- to late summer. Wimbledon? The U.S. Open? I wouldn’t know, because I have never been a fan. My father and I are the only ones who will not spend hours listening to the grunting of some millionaire phenom serving a ball to some other millionaire phenom. There was a time when whatever huge tennis event overlapped with the Tour de France. Though I did once vie for some time on the communal wide-screen, the votes were against me, and in retrospect I do realize that watching a hundred doped-up, super-skinny guys ride across France in garish jerseys and tight shorts was, for them, of far less interest than watching Venus take on her younger sister, Serena.
5. Post-supper storytelling
My favorite part of our reunions at the beach is listening to various versions of the past, learning things about people we grew up with that I either did not know or have long since forgotten.
Both of my parents are excellent storytellers, and the gene has been passed down to all but one of their children, for I am OK if you give me a legal pad and a pen, but I do not excel at the oral tradition. I do love to listen, though.
Perhaps my favorite line, out of all the wonderful stories that have been repeated, if slightly embellished, over the years, came from my father. A silence had settled over the table at the end of one story, but like the sea outside with its endless waves, we all knew that, in seconds, another anecdote would roll in. Suddenly my father said, “A man came up from Wilmington carrying a bag of snakes.” One of us — I will not identify who, and it doesn’t matter, because we were all thinking it — said, “All your stories start that way.”
And they mostly do. As do my mother’s, which tend to start with lines like, “This was around the time that Aunt Ethel came on a train from Wyoming to visit us in Lenoir and wouldn’t leave her room because she was terrified by all the trees.”
My parents know their audience. They know that their children hunger for stories, and they know how to deliver. Some might claim that their audience is captive, but although our presence at these reunions might be desired, it is not required.
I’ve missed a few over the years, and I regret it, for not only are these reunions a time to share stories, they are also often the source of them: the time it rained the entire week and we played hearts until my father finally succeeded in shooting the moon; the time one of the grandkids (we think it was one of the grandkids) left a clump of seaweed on the kitchen counter that stunk up the house for days; the time we made an (ironic) trip to The Rice Museum. Not to go all biblical here, but each reunion begets more stories, which beget something far less ephemeral than terrific crab cakes or suntans: memories of all of us together again under the same roof.