Monday, August 28, 2006

Ballantine Clan

We have a tradition in my family of debriefing all major Ballantine-Family events in the form of high-school year book-like superlatives: Best Dressed, Biggest Splash, Most Changed Since Last Time, etc. and for many years, the Lightfeet would eat up a good two hours of the drive home coming up with categories, and then voting on them. All of this took place in our family’s old-school Chevy Van, the one we no longer drive; the one with live moss growing inside on the carpeted walls. It was so much fun and essential to rehash the reunion and hear about everyone’s experiences and conversations held with our beloved Ballantine family—an off-shoot of Wilmot and Tilden Ballantine’s brood: six sisters and two brothers, their children (the first cousins), their children (the second cousins) and their children (the third cousins). Elizabeth Ballantine Johnson, my mother’s mother, was the third oldest of Wilmot and Tilden’s children— the second oldest sister. My mom was one of nineteen first cousins, I’m one of forty-six second cousins and Grace and Johnny are two of over forty (and counting) third cousins. Nancy Ballantine Bell, now in her eighties, is the youngest of Wilmot’s and Tilden’s eight, and the only sibling living. She’s the strongest link to the Ballantine past and the most inspiring link to the Ballantine future.

Over twenty years ago while sitting around my grandmother’s dining room table, I observed out loud that the common denominators that seem to bind the extended Ballantines are a sense of humor and musical interest/ability. Imagine playing music and laughing with eighty or so of your closest friends…eighty of your closest friends that look a lot. like. you. So much like you that it becomes increasingly difficult to link children to parents because of the striking resemblance to their aunts, uncles, grandparents, even second cousins once removed. You can’t pick who your family is, but you can choose whether or not to show up at the family get togethers. We Ballantines show up, because if you miss it, you miss out on some of the best times you’ll have all year.

The ebb and flow of births, deaths, unions, separations, geography, schedules, and travel logistics alter the course of who’s actually present at each one, but the core elements remain: kids, canes, cameras, conversation, hugs, laughter, tears, spirits, singing “Ballantine Clan”, barbeque, and the inevitable sentiment that, “Gosh, these people are neat; I wish we got to see them more often.” Maybe it’s a result of seeing Booba and Sam looking dapper in the black and white photos, or maybe it’s due to images I conjure when hearing about hanging out at Martha’s and Max’s house, but I can’t shake the sense that the Ballantine Glory Years were over before I was even born. Then I think back to the summers at Otter Creek and the endless games of Hearts and Spades that Gabe taught his younger cousins to play, the lodge and the kids’ bunk room upstairs where you talked all night long to cousins that you just met but became best friends with, the all-ages softball games, swimming, the Horse and Carriage ride that D. Bell organized, impromptu charades games and talent shows, horseback riding with John and Ann Austin Glenn, the year my penny whistle got run over by the Chevy Van but Gordon worked out the kinks with a wooden spoon and it played better than before, retelling stories from the trip to Michigan, the year Sadie transported all that barbeque from Owensboro and had pickle juice spilled all in her purse, the year that there were like eight or nine babies under one, the hours of planning the sleeping arrangements for the cabins and people ending up sleeping wherever they wanted, Welcome getting bitten by a dog, and when Katie Dee asked Bill Lightfoot, “Where did she get bitten?” my dad replying, “Oh, in the kitchen,” the year Jay, Clay and Doug went to great lengths to document everyone on the Family Tree and then giving everyone name tags to identify who’s who, hearing my dad and G. Scott, childhood friends since the first grade, tell entertaining story after story, T. Scott taking people on a boat ride, L. Bisson and Z. Bisson keeping the group in stiches at their stories and jokes, finally being able to tell Dair and Brigid Ballantine apart and getting it straight that Dair is older than Brigid, but Brigid’s children are older, Bill Lightfoot nodding off while playing guitar, the year Kristen Jensen arrived to the airport a week early because she got the reunion dates wrong and still came back a week later, Terry’s Telephone Song, Nancy Bell’s double-talk, the reality that Nathaniel is gay so it was probably not appropriate to have a crush on him anymore, the reality that Nathaniel is your cousin, so it probably wasn’t appropriate for you to have a crush on him in the first place, finding Terry’s black glasses and guitar case strewn the morning after, Janie, Katie, and Emily singing “Monday in Rumsey,” Mary Bisson singing, “Family Hands,” the Jensens/Bissons arriving in a beat-up crowded station wagon, the feeling that everywhere you turn there’s a fascinating conversation going on that people welcome you to be a part of, Gordon and Jane’s music and the happiness I felt when I was finally able to play along with them, Janie and Emily Catalano’s duets, Matt and Janie’s duets, T. Mathistad’s singing talent, M. Mathistad’s Irish dancing talent, S. Haynes’ gumption at playing music with the big dogs at age eleven, viewing Gordon Bell’s amateur movies and four years later viewing Gordon Bell’s award-winning senior project, hearing all about J. B's identity crisis, seeing Austin Haney connect with my kids, especially Johnny, intending to leave at 10:00 AM, but an hour later, just not being able to tear yourself away from the stories and the laughs, seeing how happy my mom was with her sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, and always wanting to be the last one standing and the first one up, the feeling I had at the first reunion without my mom, Grace and Johnny running around with Andrew and Aurelia Ballantine in total glee, the fact that at this last reunion, the last ones standing (or should I say crawling?) called it a night about an hour and a half before my kids woke up the following day, seeing Will Ballantine, age three, completely in his element dancing to the Irish jigs and reels, being pleasantly aware that Keith, an outlaw, is genuinely interested in this fine family and how we’re all connected, and, last, but not least, realizing that just as people got warmed up, just as the weekend started to hit its stride, just as the juicy stories were starting to come out, and just as we were all getting over the awkward reacquaintance phase, the reunion was over and it was time to go home.

There’s a group of second cousins that feels like it will soon be time to pass the baton to our generation for reunion planning. It’s not to say that the first cousins aren’t doing a good job. We’ve noted that the first cousins grew up together, close by in nearby Kentucky towns. The second cousins, however, are a generation removed, and we’ve only gotten to know one another at these reunions every few years. We’re up for the challenge, though, and we’re already planning the next one, and little mini spin-offs, like maybe in the NC mountains, or on the NC coast. So, much of the “here and now” of the reunions ends up being the “there and then” and the “where and when.” When my sister was a little girl she said, “I’m a part of this family, and I always will be.” Would that everyone was so lucky.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have been to your site several times and never commented, but here at the holidays, I logged on for a touch of "home" and felt the need to let you know how much I enjoy it. I love your writings about the clan. We are so lucky to have folks we love and admire that are also our family. Other people groan when you say "I'm going to my family reunion!" but they don't know our family. How I treasure those reunions! We are truly blessed. Thank you for your fun recap of our good times. Keep it up. Love you and the rest of the clan,
Brigid {the younger sister with the older children :-)}