Every summer Uncle Frank and Aunt Marcella invited us to their cottage on Delavan Lake for a family reunion. This was my late father’s side of the family. I was only seven when he died and for many years afterwards my mother made a point of driving all day to attend these gatherings so we’d get to know his brothers and sisters. Otherwise, we hardly ever saw them.
The layout of the reunion was always the same: concentric rings of relatives arranged by age and radiating outward from the lake. The children spent all day in the water, the older ones swimming and the younger ones wading. We emerged only when called to eat. My aunts, who had prepared the sweet corn and potato salad and hamburgers, sat in folding chairs on the shore, legs crossed, smoking cigarettes and holding babies. Further up the lawn, their husbands pitched horseshoes and drank beer. Finally, far up the long green slope, was the family’s point of origin – my paternal grandparents – who sat in the shadow of a giant Norway pine and hardly moved.
My uncles fascinated me the most. Like Darwin’s finches, they were variations on a theme. They all spoke in flat, Chicago accents, complaining that the weather was terribly “hat” or about traffic on the toll-road to “Wiss-kan-sin.” Whenever one dispensed with a somber pronouncement, the others would nod in unison. My favorite was Uncle Richard, my father’s youngest brother, a big, raw-boned man who possessed the sort of physique associated with Soviet monuments to The Worker. Sufficiently begged, he’d transform into a human catapult for flinging us into the lake.
These family get-togethers at the lake continued unabated for years though my interest in them waned. I stopped going about the time I got my driver’s license and couldn’t see wasting a precious summer weekend on relatives.
Which was a shame.
Like weddings and funerals, a family reunion offers a vantage point from which past and present can be glimpsed simultaneously. As a skinny kid, I could look at Uncle Richard’s musculature and find cause for hope. Similarly, when my uncle horsed around at the lake, they were briefly freed of the restraints of adult life and I could recognize myself as they briefly reverted to being someone’s little boys, someone else’s goofy brothers. And what I wouldn’t give now to go back and quiz my grandparents: “What was it like growing up at the tail-end of the 19th century? Was life better when there were fewer cars and more horses?” But children live so completely in the present they can’t imagine a world that isn’t fixed and unchanging.
I was married with a child of my own before I got around to attending another family reunion at Delavan Lake. Instead of driving up from Chicago, we came down from the north, so there was none of the old magic of “going to Wisconsin.” The driveway still curved through oak woods but now led to a new cottage, the original having burned down after a lightning strike. Everything else was the same except the cast of characters had been reshuffled. I no longer recognized the kids splashing in the lake and the men now played coed volleyball instead of horseshoes. My grandparents were long gone, their place beneath the great Norway Pine now taken by white-haired aunts and uncles who sat in its deep pool of shade towards which we were all slowly advancing.
Uncle Richard was there though no longer the colossus of my youth. It seemed strange to sit with him drinking beer as more or less an equal. He’d weathered some tough times, rumor had it, divorce and career setbacks, but we didn’t talk about current events. Instead we talked about people no longer present. Parenthood had made me wonder about my own family origins as if the past might illuminate what came next. So I asked Uncle Richard what he remembered of his older brother. He paused a moment to unreel the years.
“Your father,” he said, “was a peach of a man.”
John Hildebrand is author of five nonfiction books, the most recent of which is Long Way Round: Through the Heartland by River.