Commentary: Musings on family traditions and firebugs

Growing up the second oldest of a little more than a dozen cousins born to five sisters, I've had the unusual vantage point of being able to watch a succession of family members pass through parts of life's obstacle course. Some stumble where I stumbled, some pass though those spots easily only to get caught on snags that I never gave a second thought.

All of us, plus the few children of the next generation who are coming into adulthood, are in complete agreement that our common patriarch did a good thing way back when I was a boy in establishing a regular family reunion. That fellow was Homer Bradley, a veteran of the Great War who served in France, returned to the states and was running unsuccessfully for public office by the time the Great Depression hit. It strikes me that neither wars nor economic disasters are all that great, but that's fodder for another day.

My grandfather married late, taking as his bride, Anna Mae Aaron (who held many job in her early years, including obituary writer), and settling in Harrisburg, Pa., about three blocks from the state government complex, presumably so if his political luck changed he wouldn't have far to walk to work (I'm only half kidding about that).

A jovial fellow with a warm smile and a loud laugh, he wore a bow tie just about every day and it struck me he knew just about every adult in Pennsylvania's capital city, or at least that's what it looked like to a 10-year-old boy.

So in any event, Homer, as all us second and third generationers affectionately call him, established these annual summer family reunions. The setting of the date for most of them was accomplished at a gathering of the sisters at the conclusion of each year's event. To the best of my knowledge, no one had ever set a particular agenda. The reunions largely involved kids playing in the yard of one of the aunts and a fairly substantial cookout featuring hamburgers and hot dogs and similar fare.

When Homer died, it was no surprise to me, but possibly rather shocking to anyone who would have stumbled into the viewing, that my younger cousins were treating the event like a backyard reunion. The image I can't get out of my mind even these nearly three decades later is one of my younger cohorts bushwhacking through the masses of flowers around and under the casket.

So anyway, flash forward and in recent years we have made an effort to bring back the tradition, though the addition of a third generation and a swarm of cousins-in-law has meant adding an exponential level of difficulty in coming up with a day when all can attend. We're back up to having it every two or three years, and earlier this summer the event showed just how quickly a bunch of us can make our way around the world. To date, the farthest afield relatives I have are the Asian children adopted into one branch of the family and the Australian bride of my youngest cousin.

The Australian, by the way, offered my children and I an interesting perspective on what it means to live in a place where there are exotic animals. Being from Australia, you might think, as I did, that she would regard the U.S. Piedmont (we reunited in Charlottesville, Va., this past summer with about 80 relatives, spouses and kids turning up) as being fairly mundane in terms of its fauna. After all, Australia is home to big lizards, sawfish, kangaroos and koalas.

As it turns out, this territory, which is a lot like the hills of Virginia, has two creatures we ignore but caught the eye of my relative from down under. Squirrels are one. They are pretty ordinary to me, but then again, they have some fairly monkey-like qualities.

Then there were the fireflies, also known to us in these parts as lightning bugs. These may as well have been visitors from another planet, and they took on a hybrid name: firebugs, which now is the common term for them in my household.

The other point driven home to me is that each of the people attending the event has another extended family on the other parent's side (and three more on the grandparents side) that is just as massive. Pretty soon, if you extrapolate enough, it's like we're all related, which we probably are.

Anyway, just some thoughts on a summertime activity as another summer fades into the longer evenings of autumn.

Oh, and check this out: @kennedyedit.

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