Of all the strangest kinds of family reunions you can attend, the most unusual is the one that isn’t your family. You meet third step-cousins from a step-uncle from a marriage that ended in the Carter years — and we’re family! Right? Right. Can I borrow a hundred dollars? C’mon. Family.
Someone else’s family reunion is like a high school reunion: There’s something that binds you all, and you may love everyone in the room, but it’s not family in the sense of blood and genealogy. It doesn’t have the long history, simmering disputes, catty chatter and old deep affections.
Your own family is different, of course. It’s like the cast of a play that’s been going on for decades, and even though there’s no script, everyone knows their lines.
Whether it’s your family or someone else’s, there are some types you’ll meet at every reunion. (Disclaimer: This observation is based not on my own precious family, but what I’ve heard by asking some other folk.) Those archetypes include:
• The Cousin Who Never Really Got It Together. He had energy but was never able to corral it into anything useful. After high school he just seemed to drift, you know? He talked about joining the Peace Corps but didn’t get the paperwork done. Hurt his back somewhere along the line. Comes with a six-pack of Milwaukee’s Best but somehow manages to leave with 12 bottles of Summit.
• The Brassy Aunt. Every family has one. Full of vim and vinegar, often dressed in purple, lots of bracelets, crushes the kids with hugs that pop spines out of alignment, drinks red wine and brings vegetarian lasagna. Makes polarizing political statements and gets offended if you argue back. You get along perfectly well, but for some reason she unfriends you on Facebook a week later.
• That Cool Older Cousin You Had a Crush On When You Were 13. It’s a second cousin, so legally you could have gotten married. Don’t bring it up.
• The Spouse Who’s Enduring This With a Frozen Smile. Oh, wait, it’s your spouse. That’s probably not good.
• The Quiet Uncle Who Has a Camera With a Large Lens That Looks Like Mount Palomar Observatory Is Coming Out of His Sternum. At least his arms aren’t long enough to take selfies.
• Bob, Who’s Had Some Rough Times But Still Has His Sense of Humor. Everyone talks about his Rough Times in whispers, clucking with sympathy, wondering how many bad things can happen to one guy. The leg operation, divorce, house fire, job loss, the kid in trouble — it’s like he’s the sacrificial goat for the entire family. Did you ever get your casserole bowl back after you brought him hot dish after his car was stolen? Me, neither.
• Happy Grateful Grandma. Everyone gushes about how well she’s doing for her age, and when she says something rueful about getting old, someone says, “Oh, Grandma, you’ll outlive us all!” Which is not likely unless everyone but her takes the same bus home and it goes over a cliff.
It’s exhausting, and in the end you always feel bad that you didn’t get together for lunch with your cousin like you said you would at the last reunion. You wonder if you look as old as that person, or as young as that one. (Hint: the former, or you wouldn’t wonder.) You resign yourself to forgetting the names of the recent crop of little kids, who couldn’t care less about any of this but are pretty sure there will be ice cream. You wonder if they’ll have a reunion of their own someday.
We used to have a family reunion about once every three weeks, because aside from a few brothers who struck out for the territories, everyone in my dad’s huge family stayed in town. Nowadays families disperse like dandelion seeds. The siblings might get together once or twice a year, but gathering cousins and uncles and aunts and siblings and offspring into one place usually takes someone devoted to tradition, someone who makes sure everyone lines up for the group photo, and someone who mails everyone a copy in a folder with family charts that go back to the day when Olaf Svedberg came to America with three kroner and a tin of herring.
In 30 years the tradition will flower anew, perhaps — everyone will turn on their holographic recorders and put on their VR glasses and meet in a digitally created space. You’ll be able to edit your settings to make you invisible to some people, remove all children under 7 and erase your liver spots.
It won’t be the same, but it’ll be something. After all, there’s nothing like getting together with people you’ve known since you were tottering around in Pampers and talking about the things you’d just as soon forget.
Like the fact that your cousin shot you in the keister with a BB gun when you were 10. He brings it up every single time. And why not? It’s a great story. We were out by the river at the farm with our Daisy rifles, setting up old cans on the rusted tractor Grandpa drove into the woods decades ago, plinking away and feeling like Western sharpshooters. Then he pumped up the gun and put one in my rear. Ha ha! Welcome to our country ways, cuz.
If it had gone in too deep to remove, I’d be cursing his name every time I went through the airport metal detector, but it didn’t draw blood. So it’s just a great story. Every family has them.
And the best ones are often about the worst family reunions.