The Calm Between Reunions

For my husband and me, July is Family Reunion Month.

I might’ve mentioned here before that my marriage was the union of two tribes. In practical terms, this means we travel a lot to see ’em all, and July is the high watermark.

We just got back from Illinois. (Lock the front door, oh boy!) My husband drove up to Illinois with his brother and sister-in-law for their mother’s family’s picnic. I’d already flown to Pennsylvania to be on hand for the surgery of a family member, then I flew out to meet them in time for the party. The weather was clear, and not too hot, with a light breeze. The farm was in its party clothes. Cottage garden flower beds in full bloom, meditative cows watching the goings-on, a wren feeding two hatchlings. The perfect setting for the kids to run around in, while grown-ups shared recent news, old stories and laughter, celebrating new babies, consoling fresh griefs.

My husband has employee benefits with an airline–we get to fly for free…on a standby basis, if there’re available seats. So we left the car up in Illinois and flew back to Texas. Between over-full flights and weather, we didn’t get home until after 11pm, instead of 3pm like we’d hoped. And now, a few days of catching up on mail, bills, chores, and laundry–and paying attention to two cats who are trying to pretend their “Auntie Sarah” didn’t stop by twice a day to cater to them.

In other words, a few days of calm. Then, we’ll fly back up to Illinois (I’m hopingĀ  for fewer delays and bumps), and get in the van to drive out to eastern Pennsylvania, where we’ll do it all over again. Only more so.

The reunion on my side of the family goes on for days (weeks, even), with folks arriving from all parts of the US as soon as they can, and leaving only when they have to. We have one big party for friends as well as family that starts on a Saturday morning and goes all day, often into the wee hours of the morning. Upwards of 200 people come. There’s slip’n’slidin’, softball, volleyball, and a hotly contested horseshoe tournament. “Uncle Herm’s Dirt” is a pile of sandy soil under a tent, with plenty of plastic trucks, cars, buckets and trowels for the littlest participants. In the barn, Uncle Joe calls a couple of square dances, backed up by the family pickers. At almost 90, he’s planning to hand off the calling responsibility to his daughter Joanne this year. (Thank you, Joni, for taking us on!) And almost all day long, there’s pickin’n’grinnin’. Under the Big Tent or in the barn, we get out the guitars, banjos, fiddles, mandolins, basses, cello(!)–and occasionally wax paper and combs and wash-tub bass–for homemade music that spans the generations, where Willie Nelson, Simon and Garfunkel, big band favorites, old hymns, bluegrass, Irish, Scots, and German folksongs, Dave Matthews, etc., live comfortably together. As we like to say, or perhaps warn: “The more you drink, the better we’ll sound.”

An experienced Grill Team feeds the hordes with burgers, hotdogs, sweet corn, tomatoes, and all the sides and desserts brought by attendees, washed down by kegs of beer, soda, and water. Like my husband’s tribe, we’re a self-serve kind of family. We put up the tents, build the slip’n’slide, make the food, wash the dishes, clean up after the parties, etc. We get the kids involved, so they learn how to throw a reunion. Along the way, they learn that work can be more fun–a lot more fun–than video games.

This year, we’re celebrating 100 years and six generations on “The Farm.” Our hope and prayer is that our descendents will enjoy another 100 years and six generations, gathering on The Farm, just being family together, with all their friends, too.

I think this experience of family is why I gravitate to (and ground my fiction in) the idea of Scots clans. For all thatĀ Forge–and it’s soon-to-be-released prequel, Seeds of Enmity,–are set in another arm of the galaxy in the far future, I believe the human heart will always need families in which to thrive.

Oddly, the German side of my family is more into the clan gatherings than the Scots side…but we’re improving our track record there, too. We’ve figured out we just have a heckuva lot of fun together, even if we don’t have quite the full-bore musical/athletic/etc. extravaganza of our paternal family.

Which proves my final point: You don’t need a farm to have a reunion. You don’t need hundreds of people…or even people related by blood (about a third to a half of the folks who show up at our reunion are “related by love”…you know, the people you grow up calling aunt and uncle, and you’re about 12 before you figure out their kids aren’t really your cousins, but by then it’s too late…they are). All you really need is to pick a place, a day, a time, bring some food and drink, and just do something together. Sit and chat; play a game. Don’t play instruments? Have some tunes on…be brave and do some karaoke. The point is to spend a day with people you love, doing nothing more than celebrating the fact that you’re in each other’s lives.

And making those memories together is a darn good way to spend a summer day. Which is why I’m actually looking forward to flying back to Illinois and driving out to Pennsylvania before finally driving back to Texas, once again via Illinois. I’ll probably post this tune then, too.


Happy Easter with The. Best. Bread. Ever.

My youngest older sister married a nice Slovak boy. My maternal uncle married a nice Slovak girl. They both brought great recipes into the family, so that we began to say, “cut a Slovak, they bleed good recipes.”

Here’s one of my favorites, my sister’s take on Paska, the slightly sweet and wonderfully dense Paska-wholebread from the traditional Slovak Holy Saturday meal. Paska, along with red beets-and-horseradish, ham, sausage, hard-boiled eggs, new salt, syrec*, apples, and nut and poppy seed rolls, is loaded into a basket and taken to church for a special blessing, then served up at noon. I look forward to Paska all year long. Since I won’t be back in Pennsylvania for Easter, my kind sister generously sent me a loaf. I did a happy dance through the kitchen!
(*A mild, homemade cheese. Great with apples and the ground red beets and horseradish.)

Paska’s Basic Dough**
**The original recipe calls for an interior cheese dough. My sister’s never bothered with it, and I’ve certainly never missed it. The entire recipe can be found in God Bless the Cooks–a cookbook dedicated to feeding family reunion hordes with proceeds supporting charitable works. Let me know if you want to buy one ($20). I can hook you up, while supplies last.

Yield: Four Paskas
Baking pan: 9″ tube pan (optional)
Temperature: 325F for 10 minutes, then 350F for 40 minutes. (Total: 50 minutes)

8 cups flour
2 Tbs. salt
1 cup warm water
1/4 lb. butter
1/2 cup sugar, divided
2 cups milk, at boiling point
1 cake yeast
3 eggs
1 cup golden raisins (optional)

Crumble yeast in 1/2 cup water and 1 tablespoon of sugar. Set aside for 5 minutes. Pour boiling milk over sugar and butter; add balance of water. Cool to lukewarm. Sift flour into bowl; add salt, eggs, milk mixture, yeast, and raisins. Knead dough until smooth and elastic. Place dough in large bowl lightly greased with vegetable oil. Cover. Let rise until doubled in bulk, about two hours, in a warm place.

Turn dough out onto lightly floured board and shape into four parts. Place into 9″ tube pan, covered to prevent drying, and let rise for 30 minutes. Just before placing in the oven, brush top with beaten egg yolk. Bake for 325F for 10 minutes, then increase temperature to 350F and bake for another 40 minutes.

(The tube pan is optional. I’ve also seen these braided, and clearly, a round loaf is perfectly acceptable!)

The reward:
Paska-cutMy own Paska tradition: the first slice, just buttered; the second, with butter and honey; the third, with strawberry jam. Repeat as necessary.

Now, if she’ll send me a loaf of her raisin-cinnamon bread, I’ll post that recipe, too!