On Sunday, July 3rd, 1983, my family had our annual family reunion/Independence Day celebration. It was a beautiful day; warm enough to go swimming, and cool enough that we weren’t sweating like track horses.
That year was one of the largest gatherings we ever had at my parents’ house, as many of my aunts, uncles, cousins, great-aunts and uncles, and some others all took advantage of the long weekend to travel from out of town. Cars were parked up and down both sides of the street. This would be our first family reunion without Grandpa Henry, however, but we were all going to make sure that Grandma enjoyed herself.
We were all busy the day before, cleaning and setting up. We borrowed some picnic tables from some neighbors, cleaned out the garage, did yard work, erected a volleyball net, and we cleaned the pool. My dad got a keg of beer and we borrowed a tap from a neighbor. Mom and my older sisters prepared food, my sister Julie bought paper plates, plastic cups and silverware, Valerie made a whole bunch of brownies, and I did whatever I could to help.
The party started at 2:00. We had about fifty people at our house. Some of them were almost strangers to us, as it was so long since we last saw them. My dad’s brother and sister-in-law, my Uncle Arthur and my Aunt Anita, and my four cousins, Scott, Sean, Ted, and Anna, made their first trip to New York from Arizona in almost ten years, and I hardly knew who they were. They had never even seen my sister Dana, and they last saw Patty when she was just a year old.
I introduced Valerie to all of my relatives. She had seen some of them at my Grandpa Henry’s funeral, but most of them were new to her. I told Valerie a little about each relative, so she had a sense of what they were like, or had something to talk about with them. Then I told her about my cousin Scott, and I warned her to be careful around him, as he was trouble.
Several times, I saw some of my male cousins gawking at Valerie, which made me a little uneasy. Sure, she was pretty, but you’re supposed to look once and move on.
My cousin Scott was a little too friendly with her, and I kept my eye on him.
Scott was two years older than I was and had always been the one in his family to get in trouble. Over the years, we would hear stories about him: he was a bully and got in fights at school, was arrested for stealing from the hardware store he worked at, stole a dog, vandalized a park, had a whole mess of traffic violations, and more. He was nothing but trouble, and most of us knew it. Whenever he went in the house to use the bathroom or something, we nonchalantly made sure that someone was keeping an eye on him, so he didn’t end up somewhere in the house where he wasn’t supposed to be, rummaging through someone’s jewelry box or purse.
We played a few of games: bocce ball, volleyball, and the egg toss. Valerie was my partner for the egg toss, and I got egg in my face and hair when our egg broke.
Then, my dad picked four captains to pick teams for our annual tug-of-war competition. We started the wars about ten years earlier, and we made it an annual event. We used a big, thick rope that my dad had for years. Dad picked the biggest and the strongest to be captains, and then each captain chose someone from the group of those who wanted to participate.
The smaller kids weren’t allowed to play with the adults and the bigger kids, so they would have their own tug-of-war later.
My Uncle Art was a captain, my Uncle Roy was a captain, my cousin Scott was a captain, and I was a captain. My uncles chose first, and then it was Scott’s turn, and his first choice was Valerie. When he said her name, about twenty people all turned and looked at me, including Valerie. No one said a word, however, and I selected my brother-in-law Ed.
We continued to choose until everyone was selected. There were about eight or nine people on each team and my team was made up of my two brothers, my two older sisters, my brother-in-law Ed, my Uncle Phil, my Aunt Jean, my dad, and me. I tried to choose family members first, because I knew our strengths, weaknesses, and how well we worked together.
I didn’t take my eyes off of Scott, and either did my Uncle Art, Scott’s Dad. Uncle Art knew his son was a troublemaker, and he knew that Scott made a heap of it when he chose my girlfriend for his team first, when the other captains chose the strongest competitors first. We all knew that Scott was up to no good.
A ribbon was placed on the ground below the center of the rope, and the first team to pull an opponent over the ribbon, won. My team and Scott’s team were the first to compete. Someone said go, and we were off. About five seconds later, someone on Scott’s team stepped over the ribbon, and they were done. Then, the other two teams went at it.
Valerie came and stood next to me. She whispered in my ear, “I just sold you my railroads.” I laughed out loud. It was in reference to the time that I played Monopoly with her, her dad, and Enid. I wasn’t having a very good time playing with Mr. Crane and Enid, so I sold my three railroads to Valerie so she would have all four of them, so she could win, and the game would end sooner.
Uncle Roy’s team won the second heat, and now it was my team against his team. When we were ready, someone said go, and we went at it. They were tougher than the first team we faced, and they beat us.
After the tug-of-war, Valerie stayed right by me and kept away from Scott. For the next hour or so, five or six of the women, including my Mom, came over to us just to chat, and making sure in their own ways that Scott’s decision didn’t cause any problems between us.
The rest of the day was nice, and as the sun began to set, and the first hints of night erased the warmth of the day, my dad, my Uncle Art, and my Uncle Frank brought out the fireworks: sparklers, bottle rockets, black snakes, Roman candles, fountains, jumping jacks… you name it, we had it. And for the next hour or more, Dad and my uncles lit up the yard with the illegal pyrotechnics, and everybody else enjoyed the smaller ones, like the sparklers. Too soon the boxes of fireworks were empty, and that usually signaled that it was time for everyone to call it a day and say goodbye.
Everyone left at about the same time, and, for the most part, Valerie and I just stood there as we kissed and shook hands with everyone as they passed us on the way to their cars, one after the other. Some of them I never even got a chance to chat with, and others, I barely saw all day. It was great to see my relatives, and no matter how weird they are, how snooty they are, and how troublesome they are, they’re all family, and nothing is more important.
Soon enough, everyone was gone and we all pitched in to clean up. My brothers, brothers-in-law and I returned picnic tables back to the neighbors, because some of them were having picnics of their own the next day.
Later, my dad had a chance to thank me for not causing a scene when Scott picked Valerie.
“I knew it pissed you off, Biff,” he said, “We all know how Scott is, and if it had been me and your mother at your age, I would have cleaned his clock!”
“I know, Dad, but he could have picked anyone he wanted, and he picked her, and there was nothing I could do about it. As long as he didn’t lay a hand on her, no one had anything to worry about.”
“You really like her, don’t you Biff?”
“Valerie? Of course I like her.”
“Do you love her?”
I paused a moment and thought of the best words to say.
“Dad, I love her as much as you love Mom.”
“That’s good,” he said. “Love her all you can.”
© 2011 Biff Remington, Model Citizen - 9/23/11