My mom called me a week ago to tell me about a last-minute family reunion in Covington, Tennessee.
I had no intention of going.
My grandmother and her siblings grew up in Tennessee. Granny found her way to St. Louis, while four of her sisters remained and raised families in and around their hometown.
Brighton, Covington, Munford. At least six generations of my family have occupied Tipton County.
I spent a childhood of Easters, summer weekends and Thanksgiving holidays in Tennessee. Back then, I couldn’t wait to get there. There were plenty of children my age within a family that large. LD and V taught me to ride a bike. RF taught me how to stand up for myself. VK showed me how to throw a punch. My cousin D, who was closer to my mom’s age, always reminded me that life’s possibilities were limited only by my imagination.
In Tennessee, pecan trees were in nearly every backyard. I spent a portion of those visits filling paper bags to the brim. Covington was home to the Charms candy factory; D worked there. She would give me enough Charms and Blow Pops to last for months. Today, whenever I eat a Charms, I think of D, my aunt’s porch swing, Fourth of July sparklers, and the ankle-to-knee scrape I got minutes before my first solo bike ride.
As my cousins and I grew older, our interests diverged. The shrinking common ground made the visits less whimsical. My immediate family grew in number, so it was difficult to stay with relatives. Hotel options were nonexistent at the time. Plus, the aunt with whom my mother was closest passed away. Seasonal visits were reduced to once a year and then eventually to none at all. That was nearly 20 years ago.
Momma kept in touch with a few of her cousins. The headlines were dramatic. Person A quit school. Person B died. Person C was in trouble with law. Every report my mother gave had more bad news than good. It made me tired.
So when she asked if I was going to take the five-hour trip with her and Daddy, I hesitated. I explained I was worried about Lil Ma, who restlessness during a family bus trip earlier this summer nearly killed me.
“I think she’ll be ok.” Momma said. “I know they’d all be happy to see you.”
I reluctantly agreed.
The car ride went better than expected. Barney & Friends was a lifesaver. As were nearing the destination, Daddy said a friend suggested we visit the Alex Haley museum. Haley’s 1976 novel, Roots, traced his family history from Gambia to America. He was inspired by the stories of ancestors he learned from his grandmother and her sisters. A portion of the museum visit included a tour of his childhood home. As I stood on the porch where Haley sat with his family and listened to those stories, I realized this trip was long overdue.
A couple of hours later, we pulled into my cousin’s home in Brighton. For every familiar face, there were three I didn’t recognize. As they introduced themselves, I found the family resemblances. S has his mother’s eyes. L reminded me of her aunt, a cousin my age who passed away tragically a few years ago. RK has children and grandchildren now. They are snapshots of the same person at different moments in time.
Another cousin walked up, called me by my childhood nickname and hugged me like he had seen me last week. He introduced me to his wife. We talked about work and kids. His mom, my mother’s first cousin, poured a glass of Moscato and promised to dance if someone played “Blurred Lines.” The ground that seemed so uncommon the day before turned out not to be so uncommon after all.
We left town with a promise to stay in better touch. Mom’s first cousins said they’d visit us next time. We’ve heard this occasionally over the years, but I believe they’ll follow through. And even if they don’t, we’ll be back their way. Staying connected is too important to neglect.