I'm lucky enough to belong to a big family. That means, sur as July brings fireworks, flags and loud bugs, it brings a family reunion.
When I was small, and the young generation of parents had just come back from the war, I sat at the children's table with 17 first, second, and collateral cousins aged 3 to 8 (we were allowed at the children's table as soon as we could feed ourselves and talk). Then came the middle table -- kids about 8 to 12. The teen-age table was occupied taking care of children's table one. The men ate first, along with the children. Then the women and teen-agers sat and gossiped (separate tables) while the men went out to shoot clay pigeons and nip a bit of my grandfather's cider from the cellar.
Now that we war babies are in the older-parent category, and families are smaller, and the men and women eat together, the logistics of a family get-together are a little different.
Nobody shoots clay pigeons, for one thing; and the oldest generation is no longer wheezing benevolently in split-willow rockers on the porch. Instead, when the family comes together we have people from 2 months to 87 years, all of them still going at life with both feet and both fists.
There are people who use the reunion to track down and tape family stories, people who bring old photos for identification, people who bring guitars and banjos and spend the day singing with a shifting group of people sitting in. There are scientists and insurance people, teachers and writers, farmers and accountants, soldiers and doctors and lawyers and carpenters.
The thing is, we all share a wicked black eye, which shows up in various configurations on every face from tiny blond to ancient silver head. And with it goes a wicked sense of humor, so there's usually a lot of laughter, a lot of special stories saved for this day, a lot of picture-swapping and hugs and my-haven't-you-growns.
And, of course, there's food. We do a covered-dish reunion. Something for everybody, and all of it good. We came from Virginia to northern Maryland 80 years ago, and so the family recipes are the best of Southern traditional foods along with a substantial infusion of Pennsylvania Dutch dishes and a bit of spice from the Eastern Shore.
Pickled eggs and succotash salad jostle green beans with almonds and pickled peaches. Platters of cold fried chicken and smoky ham and Alex's crab puffs lie next to wedges of ripe cantaloupe and tomatoes. There are piles of Aunt Lucy's butter rolls, and marching armies of caramel, coconut, and devil's food cakes. And because everybody's watching something these days, there are also green salads and tossed pasta and German potato salad with no-fat oil dressing, no-cholesterol deviled eggs, dilled tuna salad and fruit compotes with vanilla yogurt.
In fact the day is like a giant birthday party for the family as well as for the country. I always hear a new story about my mother or my father, from someone who knew them when they were young. And my three grown children always meet some astonishing cousin or aunt who's doing something fascinating, and they promise to stay in touch.
The long day of tag and swimming and hide and seek for the younger ones, and remembering holidays gone by, for the older ones, always brings back, for that brief time, the loved faces and voices that are gone.
Sometime toward the end of the evening, when the fireworks are over, and if my cousin Weezie has brought her guitar, she will start, "May the Circle Be Unbroken." And for this July 4, as the fireflies take over, it is.
* Holiday picnics are an especially nice time to serve put-it-together-yourself dishes -- fajitas, salads -- because they allow everyone from vegetarians to diabetics to stick to their regimens unobtrusively. It's also not a bad idea to label dishes with what's in them -- provide markers and cards near the table, and let people sign their names to what they've brought.
Little fajitas Serves 20.
4-5 pound turkey breast
2 12.5-ounce packages (10 each) small flour tortillas
1 12-ounce bottle of low-calorie, fat-free Italian dressing
1 clove chopped garlic
1 teaspoon salt or salt substitute
2 --es Tabasco
1 teaspoon or more coarsely ground pepper
1 tablespoon dried crushed parsley leaves
1 tablespoon fresh chopped cilantro
1 teaspoon mild chili powder
1 tablespoon dried minced onion
1/4 cup lime juice concentrate
2 cups finely chopped scallions
2 cups finely chopped red onion
5 cups shredded iceberg lettuce
5 cups chopped drained tomatoes
2 cups shredded low-fat Monterey Jack
2 cups shredded low-fat Cheddar
1 cup finely sliced jalapeno peppers
1 cup finely sliced red and green bell pepper
1 cup chopped ripe olives, drained
2 cups low-fat sour cream seasoned with chopped chives (optional)
1 1/2 cups avocado mashed with lemon juice (optional)