The shoes on the porch floor say it best: how the family reunion finally comes together, how the truly wondrous things happen by surprise, how different we are despite our relatedness, how substantial yet fragile are the things we share. They all come, thirty-three of them, spontaneously leaving their shoes at the door and creating an intricate mosaic nobody planned. They come in waves, people in their seventies and sixties, cousins in their thirties and twenties, preteens and the younger kids, right down to the family’s newest addition, a ten-month old who never stops smiling. They come prepared to have a good time, determined not to complain about the drizzly weather. Each wave of arrivals adds a higher level of sound and energy to the gathering.
People spend the first night eating, talking, playing cards and agreeing on a weather-forced, greatly revised schedule. The young folks quickly discover the new boathouse, an extension of the cellar. From there, numerous conspiracies of cousins are launched throughout the weekend. The first comes soon after dark: a petition from the kids to brave the weather and explore the grounds by flashlight. The teenagers lead the way over the fields’ soaking paths, into woods dripping with mystery, and down along the rising tidal river. From the house above, grandparents, uncles and aunts watch what looks like a giant, glowing caterpillar crawling over the hills, disappearing altogether and emerging once more from the water’s banks. The expedition reports back that the day’s storm has loosened dock lines: our sailboat is adrift on the incoming tide. A rescue party is quickly assembled and soon teens crawl through muck to board the stranded vessel, start its engine and return it safely to its mooring. As they emerge out of the dark, they’re greeted as the heroes they’ve proven themselves to be.
The following morning’s first order of business is a three mile hike along the gravel roads of Johnson Point. People change conversation partners several times during the trek. St. Augustine had it right: ”Solvitur ambulando” — much can be solved and resolved on a walk. After lunch, a family story hour is set in motion. The oft-repeated legends of established family lore combine with recently created sagas narrated by the younger generation. The stories’ titles say it all: “How I Got Lost in a Lawn Chair,” “How I Failed Miserably to Score with Girls but Won the Acting Part,” “How I Held Onto the Flashlight, but Lost My Dignity,” “How Goody-Goody Two-Shoes Got Her Comeuppance,” “How I Ruined My New Easter Jacket.”
The afternoon is a time for everyone to play: there is frisbee golf and ‘run the bases,’ a bocce tournament and ‘capture the flag,’ canoeing, kayaking and motorboat rides out in the bay. At games’ end, it’s time to ‘eat dessert first’: everyone gathers in the fog for s’mores at a riverside campfire postponed from the wet night before. Back inside, an impromptu dance contest breaks out among the younger cousins; they can’t resist moving to the cool songs on their uncle’s playlist. The eleven-year old winner is asked what he’ll do with his ten dollar cash prize. He quietly answers that he’s already put it in the ‘family kitty’ meant to defray the reunion’s costs. Then, “When in Maine, eat like a Mainer“ becomes the watchword for the evening meal: tackling lobsters, clams and mussels is a new, sometimes perplexing experience for many, young and old.
The big thing after dinner is the “Talent Show,” first around the piano and then in the “basement boathouse theatre.” We listen to one of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words,” and applaud a Cole Porter tune sung as a duet. Two cousins who hadn’t met each other before the reunion open the boathouse portion of the show with a synchronized, glittering hula-hoop routine. A stand-up comedy act is met with groans and laughter, we ooh at dance numbers and ahh at magic tricks. Then comes the grand finale: three elder uncles combine with three elder aunts to perform on kazoos as the “Six Pistols.” It’s eleven o’clock and nobody wants to go home. Before people make up their minds to leave, by unanimous consent the next morning’s gathering time is moved forward an hour. Twenty-somethings with the right circadian rhythms go on partying for several more hours.
In the morning we assemble on the deck overlooking the river for a time of thanksgiving. James Taylor’s song, “Shower the People You Love with Love” sets the tone. We reflect on the power of families. One seventh grader observes that families have the power to hurt “because we’re all so close to each other.” Her cousin, eight years old, talks about a family’s power to heal, “like when you have a bad day and you come home and your family helps to put you back together again.”
After lunch, the John Deere farm tractor is rolled out of the barn. The youngest ride on the rear lift, older kids and adults get to drive it around, happily making huge tractor ruts in the saturated lawn. Some have to leave, but those who stay get a second crack at water adventures. The tide is wrong for sailing, but all the other boats go out on the river. Then the younger cousins discover the farm pond with its giant, galumphing bullfrogs daring the children to catch them. The rowing dinghy is deployed, a net is secured. Two hours later, the kids are thoroughly drenched, but, while numerous frogs jump on and off the dinghy’s oars, not a single wily reptile is bagged! Two teens are tossed a line from the motorboat when, to their shock and surprise, they’re unable to muscle their way through the narrows against a rising tide. Finally, we all motor our way to the clam shack upstream — some by road, the rest by water — for an ice cream cone and a view of the river’s reversing falls.
And now, it’s over. They’ve all left. The house returns to its accustomed quiet; the silence almost hurts my ears. The dog is exhausted, the cat’s come out from hiding. We plod our way through the morning. The screened porch is empty. The makeshift mosaic of shoes is gone, swept away at the appointed time like a Tibetan sand painting. That surprising, comely convergence will never happen again in precisely the same way. It’s always like that: something precious lasts a moment and then it’s done. And yet, and yet . . . it all may be over, but I don’t think it’s completely gone. The mosaic has been dismantled, but its surprising beauty is not entirely lost. With each pair of those shoes goes someone renewed, strengthened, deepened, affirmed. We all go back out into the world a little differently, and the world is a bit braver and lovelier for it.
Edward R. Dufresne © 2013