BY KRISTA RAMSEY
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Packed neatly in our car's trunk, plates and silverware jiggle alongside trays of brownies and fruit, and a casserole of shepherd's pie. The latter is wrapped in thick layers of newspaper to retain its heat.
It is the Fourth of July, plenty warm, and the casserole does not need its rustic insulation. But I do. It is an old family habit, and lately I find myself holding on to those with all my might.
Summer is the season of reunions, traditions that come with no small emotional impact. I am on my way to the Isaac Brown Douglass reunion, a family habit that comes every Fourth of July.
It is a day when memories fill the air like embers off sparklers. The new clothes we bought. The heavy chest that held the family silverware. My aunt Ada's widely praised potato salad. It is a day when I uncharacteristically want no surprises. I want things to be just as they always have been.
Keeping things in place
The reunion is a nucleus of my life, a center around which the years spin furiously and repeatedly. It is woven into the fabric of my childhood. Perhaps it is part of the hem that holds it all in place.
It was always a day for high spirits, laid out for our pleasure, filled with expanses of good food and topped off with fireworks. Nothing could have been better.
We children ate all we could, making our way as directly as possible to the dessert table, then ran off to swim or ride Ferris wheels or "The Zipper" at the carnival nearby.
Full stomachs and spinning rides sometimes combined for disastrous results. No one fretted. It was a day of freedom for all, and rare and delicious abandon.
I'm not sure when it came to mean much more to me. As I buff and shine up my own children for the event, I remember more details than I recall taking in.
I see the rolls of thin white paper being carefully unwound across the long picnic tables. I see the women talking, trying to catch their speeding offspring long enough to introduce them to out-of-town relatives. I smell the coffee that was always brewing, taste my mother's chicken and noodles, hear her first cousin Merl say grace with such sincere thanks it still catches at my heart.
It was one of the places in my life where I learned gratitude. I knew, very young, in some fundamental way, that I was very fortunate to have dropped down to this place on Earth, and in this company. I looked up and down those tables and felt rooted and wanted and safe.
I had a place at that table. We all did. We all belonged. While our neighbors and friends celebrated independence, we Douglasses celebrated our interdependence.
Inheriting a rich life
We never left there without hearing the names of Isaac Brown and Susan Shanklin Douglass. They were my great-grandparents, and their union was the knot that began our safety net.
They were good people, sturdy and unpretentious. My great-grandfather was a justice of the peace for 40 years, a man who served on the school board and helped establish the hospital. He was known as a peacemaker. My great-grandmother was a devoted wife and mother of nine healthy, happy children. I think of her often -- and wonder how she did it -- as I care for two of my own.
I own nothing material of theirs, but I still enjoy a great inheritance. My ancestors worked hard, lived generously, looked out for others and loved one another well. Dan Quayle had nothing to teach me about family values.
Next year I will be president of the 70th annual Douglass family reunion. It is the opposite of a ceremonial post, since it mostly involves setting up the tables, making the coffee and saying the grace.
I will do it with gratitude. A promise has been kept for me, handed down gently, from generation to generation, for all these years. I hope I have the wisdom to hold it tightly, and when my turn comes, to pass it on.
Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202.