Effervescence: Siblings, cousins, children, and mates at a nineties Michigan reunion (Myers, second from left).

Mother was a pyromaniac.

She found an outlet in fireworks of all kinds: spouting fountains and bottle rockets, cherry bombs and sparklers. Above all, she loved Roman candles, which shoot a succession of 10 colored balls of fire high into the sky. They are never to be handheld—and, it goes without saying, never aimed at anyone. (Stay tuned.)

Since fireworks were an integral part of our family reunions and were then illegal in the State of Michigan, Mother bravely crossed the unguarded border into Ohio each year. Ohio—ugly without Michigan’s beautiful lake borders—but the promised land of things that went boom in the night.

The family gathered Up North each summer for our annual fireworks/enchiladas/singalong/watersports/booze-soaked reunion. We drove or flew from Detroit, Oklahoma City, Seattle, Albuquerque, San Diego, and St. Louis . . . the elders and the cousins, with various Significant (or not) Others, and a few good kids.

Our center was mostly Platte Lake, five miles out of Honor (pop. 285), where in 1909 the grandparents had built a log cabin, featuring a giant stone fireplace, on 200 feet of lakefront. It’s a half hour from Traverse City, TripAdvisor’s No. 2 small-town destination.

Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, the Myers-Gilster-Hogan family’s Up North rendezvous. Photo by Toni Myers.

Visiting the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes is a reunion must. We’ve climbed them since we were old enough to crawl. Today they’re part of the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, “the most beautiful place in America,” according to a Good Morning America poll (2011). We panted up the big dune and raced down like wild things.

Dune climbs have always been followed by picnics featuring deviled eggs and Swankie Frankies, hot dogs stuffed with awful cheese and wrapped in bacon. My least favorite picnic included Cousin Johnny chasing me along the beach shooting rubber bands (I’d bought everyone adorable little wooden rubber-band guns with our names engraved, not thinking ahead to their actual use.)

Once my generation grew up, picnics got rowdier, with the addition of champagne in generous quantities. The case of champagne brought by He Who Shall Not Be Named was, in retrospect, not a good idea. Sister swung from the shelter rafters yelling “More Dwight Yoakam!”, then moaned all the way home in the back seat of my rental, me sternly advising her, “Don’t you dare throw up in this car!”

Pass the Swankie Frankies: The Myers family in the forties (author at left).

An enchilada party became a standard feature of our reunions after cousins Lissa and Norm introduced us to their version of the Pink Adobe Restaurant (New Mexico) chicken enchiladas. The margaritas were blender-made and strong. If no songfest emerged spontaneously, Father would declare: “Please, nobody sing!” This was code for “I want to sing, but I refuse to admit it.” So of course we rendered “Good Night, Irene,” Don’t Think Twice,” and “Be Kind to Your Parents.” Father’s favorite, which we tolerated, was “Mary Ann McCarthy, She Went Out to Gather Clams.” 

Mother’s stash of fireworks emerged after dark, extra special if we were Up North for her July 4th birthday.  One memorable night, she chased her adored 10-year-old son through the woods, shooting a Roman candle at him, Danny racing for his life.  

On a calmer night, Father invited her to a romantic canoe ride. They would shoot rockets from mid lake. For some reason, she took along her disagreeable cat Mama Sita, not a fan of any water. Mama Sita lurched as Mother stepped from dock to boat. Cat and Mother landed in the lake. Fearing instant retribution and not looking ahead (a family attribute), Father paddled away alone into the sunset, leaving Mother sputtering in the lake. The rest of us were laughing so hard, she eventually stopped yelling, “I want a divorce!”

We loved to canoe the Platte River to its mouth on Lake Michigan, diving into the freezing big lake, then basking in the bathwater-warm river. One group outing, on the fast-moving upper Platte River, ended a marriage (not mine). We didn’t do that one again. 

Handsome Uncle Jack was the most popular member of our entourage and the only elder who is now alive. One summer, Jack and my brother Danny’s wife, Carol, drove into Beulah (pop 340), scoured the “antique” shops, and returned with an assortment of old ladies’ hats with veils. Mimi, aka The Evil One, was grandmother to us six cousins. Mimi had gone through life acting uppity (as in lying about her past), posing in her veiled hats with a gloved hand stretched across her chin for photos. So that night we celebrated all our great Mimi stories with a hat party and picture shoot. The guys looked particularly fetching.

The 1975 hippie wedding: Back row, third and second from right, Myers and her groom, Paul.

Platte Lake has hosted one 40th anniversary party (Mother and Father), two funerals (Mother and Father), three weddings (four if you count a field trip across the big lake to Door County for Cousin Norm’s first, a story in itself).

I married Paul by the old oak tree next to the lake. It was a hippie affair with long-haired cousins singing “Suzanne” as musical accompaniment—pre-Internet and the only song they all knew. I’d tried for “Sunrise, Sunset,” but Uncle Jack said I was too old for it at 32.  I found out years later that Mother’s characterization of my party-loving, gorgeous groom was “Good field, no hit,” an old baseball story.

Carol and Danny also married by the old tree. While it was a beautiful wedding, it was six months after Mother died. I sobbed during the rehearsal dinner. People figured I was mourning, while in fact, I was angry at Father. With no wife to rein him in, he roasted his three children at length. It didn’t help that Carol’s family extolled her to the rafters.  Despite my sour grapes, Paul and I made Carol feel part of the family right away. We’d discovered a low hole in the wall between our bedrooms at the rental cabin, placed bells on a string there in advance, and rang them loudly 10 minutes after the newlyweds retired for the night.

A year or two later, Father married Ruth, another Platte Lake summer resident. Father described her to Uncle Jack as a “volcano of passion,” though I doubt that that outlasted the honeymoon.

We welcomed prune-facedRuth to the family with our usual antics and by tying fireworks to the getaway car. Ruth was not amused, and reunions soon moved to rental places on Grand Traverse Bay. Father was grateful that we still came, and it was good to have another relative who gave us as much material as Grandmother Mimi once had. Being unapproved made our adventures all the sweeter.

Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan, USA.

We’ve just agreed to meet again in 2013. We no longer own the Platte Lake house, but we’ll find a place on VRBO, an online site I recommend. The drinking and activities may be more sedate, but the stories will be wild.  A new generation of kids will find out about the secret communal past of their elders.

Here’s to family reunions!  They may sound boring, but they never are.

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  • Carol July 31, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    Ah memories! I’m so lucky to be part of the family!

    Reply
  • Fiona July 31, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Each time I read of a family reunion, I want to be right there in the mix with the fireworks and the family. Loved this article.

    Reply