One of my favorite traditions is the summer gathering of siblings, grandbabies, and in-laws in my mother’s very small, 1970’s ranch style house out in small town Rexburg, Idaho. Between us eight children there are 19, soon to be 20, grandkids. They run around half naked and semi-wet from playing with the hose and splashing in the collection of kiddy pools that grandma buys to keep the kids outside. Nothing says summer to me like sitting on the worn out couches on mom’s back porch, laughing at the antics of our children as we eat, talk, and play silly card games into the sunset. And what a sunset it is. Mom’s little house is like a deserted island surrounded by rippling wheat fields, covered by an open sky that makes one understand the possibilities of the word “forever.” As kids, we would jump on our big trampoline till the sun went down, then we would name the sunset. Sometimes it was a bold Hawaiian sunset. Other times it was a muted English sunset. The ones I liked best were the ones that could only be described as Heaven sunsets, with subtle gold lacing billowy clouds as sunbeams streamed down to give the horizon one last touch. No one minds the mosquito bites when watching a sunset like that go down.
Part of this summer gathering is the making of big meals. Of course we practice the usual American Summer Food traditions such as covering our chins with sticky watermelon juice, eating Grandpa’s beer basted chicken BBQ, sucking on popsicles till we bloat, and burning marshmallows for the sake of creating the perfect s’more. There are certain meals, however, that only happen when the whole family is present. These are meals that are really only worth putting together when you have an army, such as our family, to feed at one time. We eat Hawaiian Goulash, and mercilessly tease those who are not brave, or crazy, enough to use all the toppings offered. One should be ashamed if they haven’t the courage to combine pineapple, green olives and raw peanuts on a bed of chicken gravy covered rice. Next comes egg-roll-night. We set up an assembly line of choppers, wrappers, and stove workers as we make a delicious mess of the kitchen. The end result being pyramids of crispy, fried egg rolls, variously filled fried wontons, and pots of sweet and sour sauce. The piles don’t last long and everyone knows to take their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd helpings all at once, because there won’t be anything left when you come back but a soggy greasy wonton that fell on the floor. After eating we all sit around moaning and groaning about how stuffed we are, and how sick we feel. Still, we beg mom to make us her layered pudding dessert, and in three different flavors too. And every meal must end with our traditional form of gratitude to the matriarch. One person starts by shouting above the noise, “Thanks for the delicious dinner, mom,” after which the rest of us pick up on the chorus of, “Mmmmm Hmmmm.” This tradition was started when we were small children and my mother became tired of saying “You are welcome” to every single one of us in turn. Now, we save her the time and let her respond to us once in full.
The native languages spoken at this family gathering are shouting and loud laughter. We have also developed an intricate linguistic art, best described as cross-conversation. It requires the ability to follow 2-8 different conversations at the same time while being able to insert your opinion on every single one of these conversations before the topic is changed. We always warn new in-laws to study and observe this technique before attempting to join in. Without proper preparation the injuries can be severe. Older grandchildren have been known to bring in sandy, poopy babies to deposit on parents’ laps because they can never get their voices loud enough to be heard. Interrupting isn’t considered rude, just necessary. Certain members of the family are counted upon for their unique contribution to the conversations. Jenni corrects bad English, Patti entertains with anecdotes and physical humor, Lizzy reprimands others for things that she does all the time, Anna tells others to “Shut up,” Ben is quiet and then surprises with a sudden outburst, Joseph talks like a baboon, and “little” Fred will try to start a ridiculously deep conversation or debate. All others in the family are still trying to get a word in edge wise, or are waiting for a quiet moment to say something. When the crowd dissipates and quietude is possible you always find Mom, sitting in the front room reading, ready to have a heart-to-heart chat with anyone in need.
Without these set traditions I’m not sure how our family would function. They are our means of survival. I’m sure our children are currently building their own summer traditions while we carry on these high octane frivolities, though we are too busy to notice them. After all, it is also tradition to allow the children to become naked heathens, foraging for themselves in the summer sun and dirt, while we carry on like clothed heathens under the shade of mom’s back porch.