(Brace yourselves, it's a long one which is unusual for me. I am working on my writing skills, indulge me? Thanx)
It began with a leisurely glance through my Mom’s photo albums. My husband and I were spending a few days with my parents in Washington several months ago. I can’t remember exactly why I was looking at fifty-year-old pictures of my childhood, I had seen them thousands of times and pretty much knew them by heart. There I was, five years old with long brown ringlets and a red headband, standing in a row with four other cousins all dressed alike. Four girls and a boy. The three girls and I are in crisp blue plaid dresses with a thin red rickrack trim. The lone boy has a shirt to match (I can’t tell if his has rick-rack, I hope not!).
We were the only members of a privileged group in our family. All five cousins, being born in 1955, we were dubbed “The 55’ers”. Our five families had organized an end of summer gathering to celebrate the fact that the five of us were all getting ready to enter Kindergarten! The moms had sewn our matching outfits and taken many photos of us that weekend at our first family camp-out. We even had a special cake and gifts, which probably made up for the super scratchy petticoats we had to wear with those dresses to make them “stand-out”!
I wonder who first thought of and suggested the idea of making the gathering an annual event? It was not a terribly complicated plan. (At least from a child’s point of view!) One of our Uncles owned some property behind his house that had a creek running all the way around it in the winter months, so we called it “The Island”. By the end of summer, one side of the creek was dry enough to drive through and that is exactly what our cars did the last weekend of every summer for many years.
I can still remember the crunch of our car tires, summer after summer, rolling over the dry rocky creek bed as we finally made it to our island campout! The loaded car would rise up out of the deep creek bed and onto the clearing that held large and small canvas tents circling a cement fire pit. (In later years the tents became trailers, all parked in a circle like an old fashioned wagon train.) There would already be several folding camp chairs around the fire pit and a collection of straightened wire hangers ready for roasting marshmallows after dark.
The very best thing about our island was the freezing cold creek that was full and deep on the opposite side of the island due to a damn somewhere along the way. Keep in mind that this property was smaller than a city block, so every bit of it could be seen at one glance. When we were old enough we could not wait to go to the dock. The dock over the creek had a wonderful rope swing that was our goal as soon after breakfast as we could talk our parents into it.
That day at my parents house, as I looked at the “Fifty-Fivers Go to Kindergarten” snapshot I suddenly realized that this year in 2010 we would be turning fifty-five years old! This just seemed so momentous and important….born in 1955 and about to turn fifty-five! I wondered what they were all doing in their lives at this point.
Sadly, we lost one cousin in our twelfth year to an accident, and I only had sporadic contact with one other cousin and even that contact was just what our mother’s told us about each other. You know; an email from my mom may include the news that my cousin had her first grandbaby or was in the hospital. The four of us that remain have not spoken much over the years, other than weddings and funerals which all ended up with us saying we really ought to keep in contact more!
I put the thoughts aside as easily as I put mom’s photo album aside that day. But later, while on the long ten-hour drive home I began to wonder about the 55’er Club turning fifty-five! We had acquired or made up the special “55’er Club” status when we were old enough to sleep in our very own tent, except for our poor boy cousin. Yes, you would be correct to assume we had the expected signs taped on the outside of our tent, stating “NO BOYS ALLOWED!” and “55’er Club ONLY!”.
You may be wondering where Facebook comes into this story. When I got home from the visit to my parents, I wrote a comment to the one cousin that I knew was on Facebook. I asked her what her favorite memories were from our camp-out days. I was shocked at the quick and enthusiastic response I got from her! I then posted some photos, including the one that had sparked the memories in me.
She immediately wrote that we must have a 55’er Club Reunion in 2010 to celebrate turning fifty-five years. My first response was that all I wanted was some FB connecting, not an awkward gathering of people we don’t even know anymore! We were basically strangers now with completely different and separate lives, why get together in some neutral place and do small talk for a few hours?
She did not write me back that day, but she obviously did some good detective work because the next day when I opened my Facebook, there was a new “Friend Request” from one of the “missing” cousins. We became “Friends” and she left several comments on the old pictures I had posted. The three of us had a great time, sharing pictures and memories. Each photo would bring up more memories and more questions……..
“Remember the time we scared ourselves to death with spooky stories in the tent?”
“What was that girl’s name who came to camp-out with you that one time?”
“Remember the great treasure hunts we used to make up for the littler ones?”
“My favorite thing was the inner tube ‘skiing’ we used to do while hanging onto the rope swing!”
‘My favorite was your mom’s cinnamon roles and Uncle Joe’s pancakes!”
Then cousin number four was talked into getting on Facebook by his daughter who had seen the 55’ers chatting it up and having a fun time getting to know one another again. I always think of him as “Poor BoyCousin”, because being the only boy in our club he was understandably tormented by us girls. But I don’t think he really minded the dozens of group photos he had to endure with us, as we got older though! Boys are boys, cousins or not!
So, now all four of us awere FB “Friends” and we were sharing pictures back and forth as quickly as we could over the next few weeks. I was reminded of my fear of going under the dock where the crawdads live, and the time we did some kind of paper-mach’e project and made a horrible mess all over one of the tents. I asked my cousins if there really was a loose bull out by the outhouse or was that my imagination. We all agreed that it is sad that as we entered our teen years and did not appreciate the gathering, it began to fall apart and was dis-continued.
It’s not as if we were the only kids there each year. We had older and younger siblings that probably resented our importance. But I don’t remember thinking that we were the main reason this wonderful family gathering happened every summer. It just did. Didn’t all families have a camp-out on their own island the weekend before starting school?
What a rich and deep family tradition this was! I have stories that can only be truly understood and enjoyed by these other three cousins of mine. And now that we have been comparing notes, memories and photos on Facebook, we are no longer awkward strangers. I know what their children and grandbabies look like. I know who has been sick, who still adores animals and who is still so busy she makes me dizzy! I know how many marriages and businesses have happened, whose grey hairs are being covered or allowed to shine.
We are revealing to one another what we coveted about each other in those painful growing up years together..........
“You always had the best hair.”
“I was so jealous of your doll!”
“Your curves made me mad.”
“Which family brought a trailer instead of a tent the first time?”
“I wanted a little brother like yours.”
I feel as if we have already had our Fifty-Fiver Reunion right on Facebook. We have continued to share our day’s activities and fun photos with one another. We have sent funny stories and comics to each other. We have congratulated each other on our wonderful and amazing children and grandchildren.
My only regret is that my kids have not enjoyed the same tradition of my childhood. There is just something special about gathering in the same place with the same people at the same time each year. Traditions are formed that may not even be intentional or planned…like the sound of Uncle Joe banging pots around in the early mornings out there on the “island” as he prepared the special camp-out pancakes. What was it he yelled when they were ready? Come on Cousins, remind me OK?