For many of us, a family reunion is one of the rites of summer. Sometimes it’s awful—and sometimes it’s energizing, inspiring, and even surprising. That’s the kind of gathering we decided to focus on this summer—in Maine, a harmony of cousins on a sweet-water lake; in Michigan, fireworks on the high dunes; on a houseboat in Kentucky, a “we-union” of adventurous girlfriends. This reminiscence is the first in WVFC’s paean to the joys of that old-fashioned get-together, the family reunion. —Ed.
Cooking up a storm. That’s what I pictured as I anticipated being top chef and bottle washer for the 15 members of my extended family who were arriving for a week of togetherness at our favorite Maine lake. Summer after summer for 80 years, our family has been vacationing at this same lake, answering its siren call. All of us love going deep into the fragrant forest, swimming in the lake’s crystalline waters, breathing the apple-crisp air, and we’d do almost anything to get ourselves there.
From the time I was old enough to eat blueberry pie I watched my parents load up the family station wagon with children, aunts and cousins, picnic baskets, duffel bags, and tackle boxes and roar northward to my great-aunt’s log cabin in eastern Maine. Never mind that it took us 15 stultifying hours from where we started in the Maryland cornfields. Never mind that our teeth rattled during the last mile and a half, bouncing and jouncing down a dirt road full of boulders, craters, and big piles of bear scat. Once there, we’d pop out of the car like so many circus clowns and be greeted by Aunt Valentyna, my grandmother’s sister, whose sporty husband had built the place in 1929.
Log cabins like hers were called “camps” by Mainers, although that was a bit of Yankee understatement. Sweeping granite steps swept you to a door that would have done a Scottish castle proud. Inside, there was a towering great room with a floor-to-ceiling fieldstone fireplace; a wall of tall windows overlooking the lake; and claw-footed porcelain tubs in each of the five wainscoted baths. There was even a suite of rooms tucked behind the kitchen to accommodate a caretaking couple, he a chauffeur, she a cook. But the days of such extravagances had long since passed by the time I started coming to the lake. The place was still stunningly beautiful, though, and big enough to fit in three generations of us, from grandmas to babies, all at one time. By then, Aunt Valentyna was the chief cook and bottle-washer. She had led where I would be attempting to follow.
Tragically, Aunt Valentyna’s cabin burned to the ground in an electric fire early in the eighties, shortly before her death. But by then my big-hearted aunt had given my schoolteacher parents a small piece of land bordering hers to build on. The place they built, a modest log cabin constructed from a prefabricated kit, was a bit like a mushroom, springing up in the shadow of something bigger and more beautiful. But it, too, managed to absorb generations of us at a time, and would be the hub of the reunion I’d be catering for my kin.
Although I’d often helped with family meals at the lake, this would be the first time I’d be fully responsible for feeding the whole hungry caboodle of us. (We all know how apple-crisp air affects the appetite.) Furthermore, I was really only accustomed to cooking small, cozy meals. You know, the kind you prepare in average-size pots and skillets for one or two families. This gathering was going to force me to rattle cauldrons and quadruple recipes. How daunting!
One thing I knew for sure: I was going to have to think BIG. Among the reunioners would be my three surfer-boy nephews from Florida, who seemed to outgrow their sneakers every week. So as my husband, Michael, and our two daughters and I pushed several carts down the aisles in the Maine supermarket, I had to confront some tough questions. Should I buy 12 or 24 rolls of paper towels? Two or three jumbo tubs of mint chocolate chip ice cream? How many more trips to this market would I need to make? Meanwhile, my always creative Michael was yanking macaroni off the shelves in shapes that I never knew existed, and our girls were tossing watermelon halves into their cart faster than I could count boxes of blueberries.
Back at the lake, the rest of the clan had begun to arrive—and rev up their appetites. After flying in from Oregon, my brother, his wife, and their two daughters had already launched the Windsurfer and canoe into the lake. My 80-year-old Aunt Mim from Pennsylvania was looking cute as she bobbed amid the waves in a pontoon armchair, a curious loon at her elbow. And my parents, whose golden wedding anniversary we would all be toasting, were just chugging in from a motorboat cruise as my sister, her husband, and their surfer boys pulled in from Florida in an aged camper, to a chorus of cheers. A sign in the camper’s back window told the tale: MAINE OR BUST.
Maybe Maine and Bust was the real story. To celebrate all of us being together again, I served up a gala first-night meal of grilled salmon and pasta primavera. The food was good and everyone ate a ton. “You did it, Sooze!” my sister congratulated me. “Yes,” I replied weakly, “but will everyone have to eat again tomorrow?”
What I had forgotten, though, was how capable my kin are—and how ready to help. Aunt Mim got busy baking her famous sticky buns. My ever-loving Michael turned out about a zillion good-looking, good-tasting grilled-cheese sandwiches. And although there were, unfortunately, no fish to fry, my very cool dad rocked the grill and roasted us one fabulous turkey. Even my 5-year-old nephew rose to the occasion, clearing the table and entertaining us with Looney Toon imitations. We fed each other.
What we ate was great. But it wasn’t only the food that nourished us during that magical week in Maine. It was cooking together, laughing under the pines, and filling the lake with a merry armada of kickboards, boats, and palm-tree floats. The lake water was sweet when we got an accidental mouthful, and so was our time together.
More than 15 years have gone by since that reunion. And it hurts my heart to tell you that it can never happen again. Unbelievably, four of us—Aunt Mim, my parents, and my beautiful husband—have all since died.
If there’s a heaven, I hope it looks like our lake in Maine. And should we all find ourselves there one day, I am going on record now to say that I am willing to cook for the caboodle. (You, too, Aunt Valentyna.) We can all eat cake, I figure. Angel food, of course.