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6 Comments:

What a lovely tale about the uniqueness of family. I could just taste that old champagne, too. Such a way with words!

Carol in Oregon

By Blogger Rogue Knitter, at 9:35 AM  

Oh my. My oh my. Thank you for taking us with you, dear Bess!

By Blogger Jane, at 5:57 PM  

Beautiful

By Anonymous Glenn across the river, at 8:34 AM  

I love hearing about the party, I'm still wiping away the tears! Jane

By Blogger jane, at 11:17 AM  

Dearest Bess,
Thanks for sharing this wonderful story - what a sweet tale about your family.
XOXO

By Blogger Martha, at 8:34 PM  

I'm behind in reading your blog but catching up today. Your story of the 60th anniversary party brought back memories of my parent's 50th, just two years ago, and made me hope and pray that they both are still around for their 60th. Each year they can celebrate another one becomes more precious.

By Blogger Mary, at 12:42 PM  

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Monday, July 10, 2006  

Married 60 Years



The 60th anniversary party was a grand event. There was an abundance of food, a plethora of kin, glorious green grass domed by brilliant blue skies. There were games and water balloons, pleanty of chairs, way too many cakes, cookies and sweets, enough liquid refreshment to float a skiff and even a couple of dogs to dash about beneath the tables.

My sister lives another 20 minutes beyond my parents on 5 or 6 rural acres just up the road from the James River. The Essex County branch of the family were not quite fully organized and didn’t arrive at Party Central till about noon. Boy cousins reunited, some of them after a separation of a good 10 years. It was heart warming for sisters to see their sons greet each other affectionately and all pull together with a will as they spread out rented outdoor furniture. We girls had the more artistic tasks, hanging lanterns and putting up streamers, leis, fluttery flags; my job was to put together the photograph display - a particularly fun thing to do - like scrapbooking only on bulletin boards. We had two easels set up with our own display and a third with an empty bulletin board for guests’ contributions. It was filled by the end of the party.

Sister had bought beer and soft drinks, ordered 2 cakes plus 200 lbs of pulled pork barbecue and baked a dozen pans of cornbread. We brought wine punch and watermelons, games for wee children and extra toys for the not so young children, as well as the bulletin boards. The yard hummed with activity, as strong fellows with big muscles hauled heavy things about and all the while 4 o’clock - party time - was closing in.

First to arrive was the youngest of the New Jersey cousins. In my nuclear family, New Jersey was always synonymous with Yankee - and they always had that Yankee look and sound. Their accent is a much stronger New Jersey than ours is Virginia, for neither of our parents grew up in the south. But I’m also sure that if you could sneak up on those cousins when they were mimicking us you’d probably think we were Gomer Pyle’s cousins, not theirs. I hadn’t seen W since ... 1984? Did I see him then? If not, it was at our grandmother’s funeral in ‘75.

Mama and Daddy, the Bride and Groom, were next to arrive and by then we knew it was time to change out of grubby set-up clothes and into Hawaiian garb. Alas. I have nothing of that nature and did the best I could with a brightly colored tank top. Somehow, setting up for the party just sort of oozed into actually holding the party, as more and more guests arrived. There were neighbors of my parents. There were a couple of work associates of Daddy - even though he retired 26 years ago. There were a good dozen old friends, including children (with their growing progeny) my sisters and I had babysat back in the 1960’s and 70’s. There were half another dozen horsy folk who’d taken riding lessons from my daddy over the past 20 years. There was a charming man who turned out to be a boy who was in 6th grade with me and who remembered that wonderful teacher who told us the magnificent story about how her mother survived genocide in Turkey and arrived with her brother, orphans now, clutching a sheet full of gold coins, on mainland Greece in 1920. There were neighbors of my sister. There were family and friends of my sister’s boyfriend. And there were kinfolk.

Mama comes from a family of 8 children and Daddy is one of 6. Mama has one sister living yet and a brother, Bill, who made the long drive down from Pennsylvania. Daddy has one brother still, Bill, who made the almost as long drive from West VA. Then there were cousins - oh so many many cousins. All with stories to tell. All looking precious and darling. Many with their growing, and even all grown up, children. There was P, my precious favorite boy cousin who I remember coaching through a year’s worth of back homework in 3 days, one spring when we were visiting our Grandmother. There was his younger brother J, who taught me my favorite salutation - “Loveya. Meanit.”

There were the rest of the New Jersey cousins. There were Daddy’s cousins from Annapolis; the beautiful B, who is keeper of the family genealogy and brought photographs of ancient generations along with her mother, her husband and three of her children. There was her aunt, the famous Cousin Barbara of the annual Christmas pajamas. She brought with her the piano part to the Mendelsohn Violin concerto I played way back 41 years ago!!!! Some widowed sisters-in-law were present, some boyfriends and girlfriends of second cousins once removed. It was a gathering so full of nostalgia and memory and a kind of laughter I haven’t heard in ... 40 years.

I’m deeply enmeshed in my husband’s Old(e) Virginia Episcopalian ethos. Hailes have lived in Essex, some of them on the same land, for centuries. When they married and moved away - it was often only away upstairs in the Big House. Within a 10 mile radius there are first, second, and third cousins, within 15 miles there are a slew of Hailes who haven’t claimed kin since the revolutionary war - but are, none the less. Though there are distinct and individual and even quirky characters in my married-into family, they are pretty homogeneous when compared to the Heinz 57 family I come from - ethnic and Catholic and inyerface and full of it. We scattered all over the country - so far that even some of my sisters couldn’t make the trip back - we’ve married all sorts of different types - we’ve followed all sorts of different paths.

But we share memories. When I gather with BD’s family - there are lots of stories to tell. In 36 years I’ve even added my chapter to the family folk history. But when my birth family gathers - well - they remember the events that make up my stories. They may remember them differently from me, but they remember:

The magical attic where ball gowns from the 1930’s were stored in moth ball filled bags.
The basement with the wicker baby carriage and the mason jars with domed lids.
The boy’s bedroom, where a copy of a murder magazine lay in a basket for years and years, oozing out nightmares even if you didn’t read the stories within.
What Grandmother’s kitchen looked like before it was remodeled, when you could tiptoe through the pantry into what she called the toy room and peek through the french doors to spy on the grownups in the living room.
We all remember that pivotal Christmas when our aunt was killed and she lay in casket, in that same living room, in a white nightgown, surrounded by all the flowers in Washington D.C., for a week.
Things we remember. Things we’d forgotten we remembered. Long trailing threads weaving back into the past, 20, 40, 100 years ago.

Towards the end of the evening, when mostly only family remained, Daddy’s brother Bill stood up and told a story. My grandfather was a lawyer in Washington D.C. and one of his clients was Evelyn Walsh McLean - of McLean Virginia - of the Hope Diamond. I’d heard my share of EWM stories growing up - how she’d stop by the house, wearing her famous jewel, and toss it into Daddy’s lap for him to play with. She did everything in a grand way. She had only the best and she was quick and generous with her wealth. She was from the midwest and I always suspected she had a special warm spot for my grandfather with his Missouri roots. But Uncle Bill had a new story for us.

In the 1930’s, perhaps around 1936, she came to dinner at the Harrison Street house. She brought a house gift of a bottle of champagne. As other wine was already arranged for that night’s dinner, her champagne, only the best, as was her style, was popped into the refrigerator where it was kept for a suitably special occasion. Uncle Bill remembers being a teen during WWII and asking his father when they were going to open up that bottle in the fridge. “When the boys come home” he was told.

Well, the boys came home. The boys left. Somehow the bottle was never opened. It stayed in my grandmother’s refrigerator - I remember it there when I was a girl. I remember thinking the date,1928, on the label, seemed so anciently long ago. When the house was sold, after my grandmother moved in with Mama and Daddy, Uncle Bill took the bottle with him, still chilled, first to his Rockville home, and then to his retirement home in West VA and then to his retirement from retirement home that hasn’t all those steps to contend with.

All the while that bottle was waiting for a suitable occasion. And now, with only two boys left, on the occasion of a 60th wedding anniversary, it was time to find out just what that champagne tasted like. Uncle Bill lifted it from the cooler and gently began twisting the cork. All the brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts and nephews and nieces - maybe 30 of us - crowded close to watch. The ancient cork separated. My sister brought out a cork screw. Cousin Jane handed out cups. Carefully, slowly, Cousin Buddy eased the last bit of cork out of the neck. There was not a sound as the bottle opened, all the fizz had died years ago.

Tiny sips of wine were poured out and passed around. A toast of “Sixty More Years” was called out and to everyone’s cheers, the long cherished beverage was sipped at last. It tasted like cognac. Not at all vinegary, but not sweet either with an antique nourishing aftertaste. A rich amber liqueur, it had the flavor of long beaded gowns and black tail coats with white bow ties. It tasted like hoochie koochie music and women with shingled hair and men with pencil mustaches. It tasted like time passing and evening coming and nighttime settling. It tasted like brothers and sisters and memories and tenderness.

After such a shimmering peak, even cousins began to think of retiring; to homes not far away or to motels in town. Of course, leave taking at family gatherings moves only slightly faster than glaciers but, as the Greeks say, “All things flow” and eventually we were in cars, jumping out for final hugs, quickly jotting down e-mail addresses, dashing into the house for a final look-see only to leave something behind anyway. And then we were driving away.

I took my parents back to their house, while my guys followed behind. There was a last hug, a pit stop, another last hug and sweet good-nights and we were on our way. Driving through the city at 10:30 on a Saturday night is pretty quiet. BD drove the Bethlehem Road, Azalea Ave., Meadowbridge Road route that puts us out on 360 deep into Hanover County. By then it was all I could do to hold my head up and we were all pretty quiet driving through the dark countryside.

In bed at last, my sleep was long and hard and deep. If I dreamed at all, they were sweet loving dreams, because I don’t remember a one. On Sunday BD and I talked for hours about all the folk we’d seen, all the stories we’d heard. I called Mama and rehashed it again with her, and then with Daddy. Later, a cousin stopped by on her way from her brother’s house, back home. We had a lovely day in the country, on the beautiful back porch with the cooling north west breeze. Mr. Bald Eagle showed himself just for her and we took the canoe out to see all the marsh blooms. More phone calls later on, to sister and parents, were still probably not enough to talk over the whole night. I’m sure we’ll have a few more days of sighs and memories and smiles to share. But it’s Monday now and a new week has begun. We’ll carry all that happy feeling with us into this week and next and on into all the tommorows. Who knows? Maybe one day that night of the old ones and the cake and water balloons and champagne toasts will be recounted at another gathering, by another little family, with stories to tell.

posted by Bess | 8:14 AM
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