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  • Kristan Higgins

Family picnics

Sainted Mother is hosting a family picnic at the end of August. Well, it’s at Sainted Mother’s house, but she was happy to pass the organizational torch to McIrish and me. Two of my uncles are helping as well. Thoughts and prayers and potluck will hopefully get us the rest of the way.

My mom is the oldest of nine kids, who went on to have twenty-eight children. I’m the oldest of my generation…my closest-in-age cousin is 55, my youngest 25. Most of those cousins have kids. I’ve lost count of how many.

The Peeper (aka my incredibly brilliant and adorable grandson) is the first of his generation, too. He’ll be the youngest person there, I think. My mom will be the oldest. I think this irks her, but at least she has a daughter with more gray hair than she has, so that’s her consolation prize.

As with most families, we have picnic traditions. For example…

Do not RSVP in a timely manner. The first time I sent out the invitations, I heard from two cousins. Out of seventy people, two answered. Weeks later, I sent out another invitation, threatening and shaming my relations into committing. Most of the relatives are coming. They always were going to come. They just like to be enigmatic. Me, I get an invitation, look at my calendar and give my answer that same hour. This freakish habit comes from my dad’s side of the family, obviously. His people are all dead now, so what does that tell you?

Setback. Mom had a table made specially for setback, a fairly basic card game. That’s our generational favorite, and we play at our own peril. I remember my heart pounding as a teenager, praying that Uncle Sam wouldn’t yell at me if I held onto the trump card too long. You play to win. If you’re losing, you bet four and damn the torpedoes. And if you make a bonehead move, expect it to echo into eternity.

Shoot the szolonna. What’s this, you ask? Oh, it’s a Hungarian delicacy! Basically a hunk of fatty pork with a stick through it. You hold it over the fire and every few minutes, squeeze the grease onto a piece of rye bread. After half an hour or so, you’ll have a blackened, fat-sodden piece of bread. Add raw red onions. Enjoy. Follow me for more delicious and healthy recipes.

Throw children into the pool. Sainted Mother likes her pool temperature “refreshing,” which translates to mammals as “So this is how I die, then.” Thus, tossing a cheeky eight-year-old in amongst the icebergs is quite fun for us elders. Having been tossed myself, I feel it’s only fair that I pay it forward.

Music. There are many talented musicians in our family. They are also shy musicians. “Play Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Mom will beg her brother. “Please, Chris. I’m your big sister. And your godmother.” Hours later, after most people have left, Chris will acquiesce. This year, I’m hoping that Chris will get right to it and/or others will step up in a timelier manner—Paul, a professional musician, and Nate, who has inherited his father’s talents and hopefully not his reticence, and Steve, though he’s more of a classical pianist who does not know Bridge Over Troubled Water. My aunt Hilary, who has a beautiful baritone, will sing City of New Orleans and cry, because yes, it’s that good of a song. I also cry, Aunt Hilary.

Reminding people how you’re related. Some relatives, like my mom and uncle Steve, are timeless and iconic. I am not. “Hi. Noel’s daughter,” is how I will greet the further-flung cousins, their spouses and children. “He’s your first cousin once-removed,” I’ll mutter to my own kids. “I babysat him. Very naughty. One of my favorites.” We’ll probably have nametags at this picnic, since the guest count just passed seventy.

My uncles telling me they’ve never read one of my books. Nor do they intend to, they assure me. This is a newer tradition/drinking game for me, twenty years into my career. I plan to carry a shot glass and will probably need a nap at some point. On another note, when will they learn I've based a character on them? A character who doesn't read his niece's books?

McIrish asking why there’s lasagna. My husband, bless him, never really had family picnics, as all his relations live in Ireland. He naively assumed that “picnic” meant hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, blueberry pie and watermelon…not lasagna, spanakopita, Mimi’s meatballs and lemon cookie bars. “Who brought the lasagna?” he asks every year, and every year, I elbow him out of the way to get some.

A child wandering into my house. I live next door to my sainted mother, but the house is tucked away, accessible by a very magical little woodland path. Obviously, a child is bound to go tripping up the path, as Grimm’s Fairy Tales instruct. When a parent suddenly panics, asking where their kid is, I go over and find a little kid standing in my house, rummaging in the pantry or playing in the recliner. “Hi,” I say.

“Can I live here?” the child asks.

“Sure,” I always answer.

“Who are you again?” the child asks.

“Noel’s daughter,” I answer. “Your mommy’s cousin. Never mind, it doesn’t matter. The answer is yes.”

The last tradition is poignant…remembering those who have died. My brilliant uncle Mike passed away in July at the age of 80. He was a great storyteller and had an incredible memory, and his impressions of our Hungarian immigrant ancestors made us cry with laughter. We will have a little time to remember Uncle Big Mike, as I called him, and raise a glass in his honor. Last year, we lost my beloved aunt Teresa far too young. This will be the first picnic without her, too.

Once upon a time, my great aunts arrived at the same time, were ushered to the prime seating under the Japanese maple and were brought their beer/wine/Southern Comfort pronto. My grandfather and his brother would be so glad to see each other and eat hamburgers. My cousins and I would play and swim and eavesdrop. Those were golden years.

And so are these.

The cousins and I are grown now. Many of their kids are teenagers, starting college, working. I’m the first grandmother, though I think that will change in the next year or two. We will all express love and shock that our kids are so big, that “Kristan, you’re a grandmother!” or that this kid is so tall, or this one is in high school, no, it can’t be! Dearest Son will peppered about life in Utah. People will be stunned that the sweet little Princess, who was 4 (or 9 or 12 or 20) the last time she was seen, is now married and a mama. I’ll get to introduce the Peeper to this huge family.

And I hope that my mom will not be too sad, remembering the times when my dad was alive, as well as her parents, aunts, uncle, brother and sister. I hope she’ll look around at the progeny who has enjoyed her picnics for decades and decades, and be glad she gave them a whopper to end this summer.


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