The Family Onion

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My parents with their ten grandchildren, their spouses and 22 of the 23 great grandchildren.

Well, it happened. We had the first ever family reunion and it reminded me, in  many ways, of an onion, for a variety of reasons.

First I should make it perfectly clear that it didn’t stink like an onion. Quite the contrary, it was sweet, flavorful, a little spicy, caused a few tears, had many layers and was circular like the veggie. Hence, I will call it the “Family Onion.”

I should explain that when my parents retired in 1981, they went to the end of the earth, made a left, and decided to call that home. Everyone else’s parents go to a condo in sunny Florida; my parents bought the first home they ever owned (we lived in rented apartments in Queens) at the top of a hill on a dirt road in the middle of the snow belt. My Mom doesn’t drive and because of that, when living in the city, only shopped in stores she could reach by bus and subway: Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, etc. I’ll never forget the time she called me, shortly after moving and said “I found this fantastic store! It had everything in it! Sheets, shoes, clothes. Did you ever hear of a K-Mart?” Well, yeah. I’d even been known to frequent it a few hundred times.

Last Friday we all converged on Norwich, NY, which is about an hour north of Binghamton, in Chenango County. It’s a quaint and immaculately clean small town with a Main Street, lots of pretty Victorian homes, a fairly good-sized hospital, a Wal-Mart and every known hamburger/fried chicken/donut franchise in America. The fact that there is so much junk food in one concentrated area shows in its population. My chunky little self (and I don’t mean the following in a mean way) felt positively svelte compared to some of the locals.  Years ago, at the height of my fatitude when I tipped the scales at over 200 pounds, I would stand next to someone seemingly as large and I’d  play what we called the “Am I Fatter Than…” game with my nieces and nephews. Usually we played at weddings or parties. I have no doubt that I would have “lost” in every occurrence had we played the game there. That felt good. Sorry. (For the record, I haven’t been anywhere near that weight in many years now.)

There were about 50 of us, ranging in age from 5 months to 90 years old (my parents.)  The event was not without a moderate crisis or two… or three. The first “scary” one was when my niece and her family of five, here all the way from England, arrived at the only decent hotel in town (and I use the term loosely…the air conditioner in my room screamed “BUNNY! BUNNY! BUNNY!” all night long) only to find that somehow her reservations were ”lost” when the hotel decided to change its booking system sometime last spring. They had one for someone with a similar name, but that wasn’t until August. And it wasn’t our Liz.

I’d driven up from NJ, my sister and some of her family from Baltimore, my son and his group were on the east coast in NYC and cousins from NH and Virginia also were there.  My girls came in on Saturday. Other nieces and nephews came from Cali, Arizona and NYC. When we arrived, it was raining in upstate NY which personally made me a little nervous but knowing my mother and her power of prayer, I had every confidence that the following day would be stellar. I’d made up some goody bags which were distributed at check in and even I was surprised at what was in them and I was the one who made them up. Late Friday afternoon, my sister and I (my only sibling) dashed through puddles to get to the Pizza Hut to order 12 large pies and some sandwiches for dinner on Friday night.

It was very crowded at the hotel as some Antiques Roadshow wannabe company was there appraising and buying (I overheard one of their group telling the people lined up waiting to come in that they’d actually paid $275. for something. I wouldn’t sit on those folding chairs for five or six hours for $275. But these people were all waiting, patiently, with their shopping bags, cartons and wagons filled with “treasures” from their attic and who knows where else. For a brief moment one nephew and I thought about raiding Dad’s garage because there were surely items of some value there and then decided against it. My propensity to save everything I own comes from my father.) Well, the hotel was kind enough to give us their “party room” gratis. It adjoined the indoor swimming pool, which was perfect. Kids let off some steam playing splash football in the pool while the adults kibitzed.

My sister, who raised seven remarkable children, is the quintessential crowd feeder, party planner and decorator. A trip to Wal-Mart (the first of many that weekend) and we had everything from A to Z: assorted chips, vegetable and dip trays, plastic tablecloths and because my sister is one of the most elegant people I know, African violet centerpieces for the tables. I made sure we stopped at the liquor store where I bought the staples I knew some of us would need for the weekend, which began withn “V” (Vodka) and “W” (Wine.)

Everyone had a great time Friday night and of course, there was way too much pizza and not enough Gin. We all went up to our rooms happy and full…of pizza and love.

Saturday dawned and yes, once again, my Mom, who probably really is a living saint, pulled through with the weather. A nice breeze, brilliant sunshine, low humidity. We piled into cars and went over to the Park that had been reserved exclusively for us. An aside about the park: my Dad was responsible for its creation. I forget the whole story but I believe Dad raised the funds and it was named for some local person who had contributed greatly to the community. It’s a lovely place, with a covered picnic pavillion, wide fields, a swing set and a crystal clear stream running along it. Once again, Sis had the goods for the decor. Flowered tablecloths, matching napkins, the recovered African violets, cold drinks, snacks, etc. I’d had a banner made with what I decided was the “family crest.” It was actually the logo off a t-shirt I found on E-bay, depicting a fish. Our family’s last name is also the Hawaiian word for fish. It’s also a type of monkey. But the monkey is ugly, so I opted for the fish. Never mind that we are 100% Italian…the name is synonymous with scaled swimming creatures from the Islands. So there was this big fish, on a big banner, announcing the Family Reunion (Onion.)

My Dad is a sort of inventor. He had the brilliant idea (I confess, I thought it was strange but it really worked!) of cooking the hot dogs in a 100 cup coffee pot my late father-in-law had given him some years ago. It was the best way to make the equivalent of NYC style push-cart “dirty water dogs.” It was a good thing, too, because someone forgot to defrost the hamburgers and someone else forgot to get matches to light the charcoal.

We spent a considerable amount of time trying to pry the still frozen burgers apart with the one non-plastic knife we had while my brother-in-law  and one of my nephews, two of the most brilliant legal minds in America (if I  mentioned a couple of the cases they argued, you would definitely know who they are), stood over the charcoal with a magnifying glass, attempting to light the fire that way. Needless to say, even the great-nephew who is an Eagle Scout, couldn’t accomplish that feat. Why was it so easy on “Lost?” My youngest came through with a “flame-thrower” when we reached her on her cell while she was still enroute due to an unplanned stop for a volcanic explosion of car sickness from her two year old. So we had hot dogs for an “appetizer” at noon and the burgers for the “entree” at 3.

The time in between was spent with another of my Dad’s improvisations. He’d tried in vain to get a pony for the great grandkids to ride, so instead he borrowed a friend’s pick-up truck and loaded his riding mower onto it. The kids had a grand time driving around the field on the big red machine. And the machine didn’t poop the way a pony is prone to do!

We cleaned up the park late afternoon and most of us went to the 4 p.m. Mass, filling up three rows at Church. Then it was back to the hotel, to the party room while my sister and I whipped over to Wal-Mart to pick up the million pieces of fried chicken (yes, we gave in to true junk food for dinner. What else do you feed 50 or so people?) 12 pounds each of potato salad, cole slaw, macaroni salad and a really pretty cake for Mom’s 90th birthday which was July 26th. And of course, another stop at the liquor store. How much family can one take in 48 hours without a little liquid sustenance?

Sunday we went en masse to a lovely little restaurant just around the corner from the hotel which had a breakfast buffet. About 45 of us filled the place and we table-hopped visiting each other. It is truly amazing how distance dissolves when you are with the ones you love the most. I can never get enough of my own children, no less the nieces and nephews who literally live all over the world. My sister and I don’t get to spend as much time together as either one of us would like and I would truly love for my parents to come to stay with me for an extended time since I am now so far away. I drove off for Newark airport with the family running after me…not because they were sad to see me leave, but because my trunk was open. Ah, yes. Another moment of pure idiocy.

But seriously, the family “onion” managed to bring us together in circles, slices of life, sweet and spicy at the same time and yes, a few tears when we bid each other farewell.

Next year I hope someone remembers the matches.

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