“I’m sorry we don’t live near your grandparents or uncles,” my mom once told me. “It’s good to have someone to run away to.”
Like many people in the post-World War II era, my parents enjoyed the prosperity and modern conveniences that allowed them to move around the county, far from their parents and siblings.
I adored my grandparents, but didn’t know them well. My dad’s mother lived in a small, coal-mining town in Eastern Pennsylvania; she flew in every Christmas, bearing home-made nut-bread and Snickerdoodles. We made occasional Spring Break trips to visit the fragrant, sun-lit South Florida home my mom’s parents built when Pop-Pop retired from Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, and they sometimes traveled to see us in Chicago during the summer.
And so, when we became “best friends” with a family that lived near us in both Boston and Chicago, we forged our own family unit, celebrating every holiday – from Christmas down through Labor Day – and major event together for decades. Our mothers commemorated their “fifty years of friendship” a few years back and the kids – some separated by thousands of miles — still enjoy an extraordinary, cousin-like closeness.
To me, that defined “family.”
Our parents made it clear we were not expected to stick around: we would attend college and establish careers wherever we wanted. As such, my oldest brother studied in Arizona and settled in Hawaii; Number Two attended school in-state, worked for a while at IBM in New York, then followed the computer-era gold rush to California. My oldest sister went to college in Minnesota and graduate school in upstate New York, then returned to Minnesota for a career in art. The sister with Down Syndrome stayed closer to home, by necessity, and the next brother attended college five hours away, but now lives in our home town. I followed that brother to college, moved to New York City for grad school and, a decade later, drove across the country to Seattle with my husband.
We still live in the Seattle area, on the island where my husband’s parents moved from Minnesota in the late 1970s. Although they attended college elsewhere, my husband and his three siblings all decided to raise their families on the island (one brother later moved his family half an hour away).
It is a close-knit family full of kind, interesting and successful adults and kind, interesting and motivated kids. Now numbering 30 people, the family gathers several times a month to celebrate holidays, birthdays, baptisms, graduations and every major achievement.
A few a years back, seven cousins attended the same elementary school – and an aunt taught second grade there. This fall, six cousins will attend high school together. We all know we are blessed to have family that we love close by.
Rich’s parents are young and active, and are actively involved in their kids’ and grandkids’ lives. Grandpa retired early and Grandma now works as a consultant, so they have the time and resources to fully participate in family life. They routinely provide before- and after-school care for several of the grandkids; keep a complicated calendar of the kids’ school performances, band concerts and athletic events; and often take weekend duty so their children can get away with their spouses.
However, their biggest contribution is the “family trip” they organize once a year. It started when the two oldest grandchildren were 11 and 8, and the boys’ parents were expecting a new baby. Grandma and Grandpa carted the kids off for a few days, and a new tradition was born.
That annual summer getaway now is called the “Eight and Up Trip”—as the grandkids can attend as soon as they turn eight. The location is always kept secret until the last minute. About 10 days before the trip, Grandpa starts sending out clues, such as “We will go west, then north, then east, then north, then east, then south,” or this year’s code-breaker: “These numbers tell the whole story: 4, 216, 3 56, 70, 1350, 5399,” which an industrious grandson deciphered as: 4 days away, 216 miles to travel, 3:56 travel time, 70 degrees at the destination, 1,350-foot elevation and a 5,399-yard golf course (Mt. Hood).
At its peak four years ago, the vacation included 16 grandchildren, but Grandma and Grandpa have since wisely split off the 18-and-older crowd, which now enjoys an annual golf weekend near the Canadian border.
Vacations usually involve car travel, although last summer, the crew (two adults, 10 kids) took an overnight train to Montana. (After a 12-hour delay on the way home, that won’t be repeated.) Golf and water sports always factor into the trip, as do raucous games of Monopoly and Rummy.
Yesterday morning, the group left on another five-day vacation. As the ages now range from 11 to 17, I suspect my in-laws will spend considerable time and effort managing teenage hormones and attitudes.
I won’t hear from my kids while they’re away, and I won’t hear much about the trip afterwards. When they return, Grandma and Grandpa will assure us as always – with bags under their eyes and forced smiles – “Oh, everyone was terrific!” even though we know better. The cousins will keep their memories, inside jokes and secrets between themselves, and recall them with smiles through the coming year.
This close, extended-family model is not one I grew up with, but I have come to fully embrace it. In fact, I will give myself permission to take my own grandkids (God willing – and not too soon, please) to my own “Grandparents’ Camp” in due time.
– Linda Williams Rorem, 30 July, 2012
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