Happy 4th of July!

The 4th of July weekend brought much of my family together. It reminded me of the comment on a playbill for a show at the Barter Theater I had seen a while back. “Sometimes they are related to us by blood, sometimes by circumstance…. They are made of people whose mere presence can bring us joy – and sometimes exasperation.” Our recent time together was much more the former.

Families are a strange creature. We don’t get to pick the members. Some of them (our siblings) we are born with. Others (our kids) we “make” ourselves. Others yet are brought into the picture by events and choices we make. All bring something to the mix. None are perfect (including ourselves).

The travails of life can pull families apart, but it can also rekindle connections. My brother has now become a neighbor (well almost). He purchased a piece of property not far from our house and he spends quite a bit of time in the area (his “happy place”…and I am happy to have him around). I never would have guessed this would occur and the genesis was the difficulties we each faced. He also acquired a boat house adjacent to our property at Boone Lake. It has become our “family compound.” It is a place to build new memories.

Perhaps the most fundamental thread that defines a family is that of parent to child: an intergenerational function in which control initially emanates from one side (downward). That power can be benign or overbearing. In my birth family, the “hard power” flowed from my father (a career Army officer), the “softer” (although sometimes pretty tough) from my mother. I suppose I have been a mix of those.

Ultimately, family dynamics mature. Parents grow older while children “grow up” (until it is their time at the top of the hierarchy). It seems that my relationship with my father “mellowed,” especially when grandkids appeared. He became the doting (grand) parent. I wish he had been that way when I was young. I was happy that my kids got to experience that side of him. I hope my own children will feel the same one day about me.

I believe that I have followed a similar trajectory. However, I made an alternative choice early on in my career. I left the military in part because I wanted my own children to have a “home” (that I never had), a place that they were from and could always return. Shelter from the storm as it were. In that, I think I succeeded. It creates a foundation on which to build our story.

Family traditions build over time. Every summer my father rented a beach house along the Carolina shore. The house grew with an ever-expanding set of grandkids. It was often riotous. Sadly, the era of those family gatherings was all too brief (mom and dad both passed in their early 70s). I am sorry that my kids did get to know them better, but we have many happy memories. With their passing, I had to become the adult. There are still times I wish I could call up my father to ask his advice, even though I generally rebelled when he gave it to me unsolicited (especially when he was right).

The challenge of finding time to gather my family together has also become harder as my own children age. The environment changes so rapidly that it has been hard to adapt: first college, then jobs with limited time off, new towns with the increased distances, and new relationships with the commitments they entail. Grand babies have made the gatherings more joyous even as it creates new challenges (alas, I’m not the only grandparent with a desire to see them). They have their own futures to live, but I still want to keep hold of some part of them.

We have tried to develop new family traditions (originally spring ski trips or going to the Army-Navy game), but even these morph. It is now rare that everyone can make it at the same time. And unfortunately, my own capabilities (bum knees for instance) have now begun to limit the types of activities I can actively participate in. However, we refuse to let circumstances deter us.

Our latest effort is to capitalize on something here at home. We are making the 4th of July our new mini reunion. This past weekend was (for the most part) something out of a Hallmark TV family special. Not everyone made it, but ultimately there were three generations represented. The picture we took of the assembled masses was priceless.

Many short visits seem almost forced. It sometimes creates an unwanted tension as you try to cram everything into the short time allotted. This extended weekend was long enough to create a calm. We could relax because we has another day to do “that” (It’s late. We’ll ride the Jetski tomorrow). Everyone could relax and enjoy just “being” (with each other) rather than feeling like we had to “do” something. It is hard to describe the “peace” that this brought to the atmosphere.

The lake has a “magic hour” when the boat traffic slows, and the sun begins to set. Multiple evenings we just sat and enjoyed to transforming sky. Blue and white to pink then red. The reflections off the water were stunning. Then it is dark and the lights across the way shimmer on the placid surface. But it was not just the environment. The conversation wanders and you know you love the people you are sharing the experience with.

When my children leave, I stand and watch them until the car fades out of sight. It is always heartwarming to see them appear and bittersweet to say goodbye. Yet this time it seemed different. Perhaps it is because they rolled in, like waves building before the wind. Likewise, they slowly left like a receding tide until it was just my oldest son and his wife. As I watched them go, I was far more fulfilled than I could have imagined. A truly “happy” 4th of July!

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