Last week 60 descendants of my maternal grandparents converged for a triennial family reunion. Every nine years my mother took her turn, planning the picnic. With her recent death, we five daughters inherited the responsibility. A year ago we set the location: the picnic pavilion on the grounds of a church-owned camp -- our childhood summertime second home.
When I was about 10, my dad impressed me with this geographic tidbit: The campground in western New York shared the same longitudinal line as the faraway U.S. capital.
When I was about 30 I moved to that distant location -- metropolitan Washington -- where I've made a life for myself, by myself. Being a day's drive from family for decades now, I've hosted hardly any extended-family holidays. That was my conscious though unspoken motivation behind volunteering to organize the reunion meal, even wrangling it away from my four older sisters. "Let's cater it," said the eldest, Sister 3, who has many skills, none of them culinary. "No," I said. "I'll take care of it. I'll cook."
These older sisters are used to being in charge. They're used to organizing their children and their church committees; they feel guilty if they're not pulling their load. Nine months ago, at an informal gathering, minus moi, they made a menu, assigning themselves parts and pots: Sister 1, baked beans. Sister 2, green salad. Sister 3, drinks and paper goods . . . I remember my irritation more than the specifics.
"No," I responded by e-mail. "I said I'd do this. I'll come up with a menu." Which I did, incorporating their best offerings, but maintaining my base recipes I'd tested at any number of dinner parties: corn salad, two potato salads (one for the adventuresome), marinated vegetables, pickled radishes. Dessert? Ice cream and fresh blueberries. Meat? Rotisserie chickens unless any volunteer stepped forward to man a charcoal grill.
The Wednesday before the reunion, I drove Route 15, north through Pennsylvania. On Thursday I bought vegetables at a roadside stand and vinegars at a small grocer. On Friday Sister 2 and I spent all day peeling and chopping in her kitchen, 30 miles from the campgrounds.
By Saturday at noon, the buffet table was well laden. I can't say I did all the work, by any means, but at the appointed hour I proudly clapped my hands, welcomed the crowd, and asked my one surviving uncle, age 86, to bless the food.
After the meal that uncle came back to the buffet to refill his plate. He found me standing there, contentedly assessing the salads. "I'll admit I was skeptical when I heard you were heading up the meal. Your being single and all, I wasn't sure you'd know how to cook for a crowd." His sheepish smile betrayed his change of attitude.
Being defined by my marital status -- the only single among 14 siblings and cousins -- maybe it's why I chose to change my latitude years ago; it's easier to live in a place where hardly anyone keeps track.
I drove away from the campgrounds Sunday morning, exhausted but strangely exhilarated. Looking back at the aging buildings from across a crowded field of cornstalks, I remembered being young and announcing my intention: Someday I'd hold my wedding reception -- inviting the extended family and scores more -- in the concrete-floored camp tabernacle now refurbished as a dining hall.
That white-dress event never happened. This week I wonder: Did that dream deepen my motivations for volunteering to host a big family party that celebrated life's longest bond? Maybe so. And maybe once is enough.