Gener: “I’ve already decided that Kevin is a good guy. If something happens between the two of you, I have no doubt that it will be your fault.”
Angela: “I know I’m the only one who could possibly mess up this relationship. But after seven years together, we’ve not even had a single fight.”
Gener: “That’s very impressive.”
Angela: “Some people bring out the best in you, and some bring out the worst. Kevin simply helps me to be the best person I can be. The trick in life is to find the right person to love.”
Gener: “Don’t I know it. You’re preaching to the choir.”
Out of all of the conversations I had during my ‘Cousin Reunion Weekend’, I am confident that the short chats with Gener will prove to be the most memorable. The 3rd son of my mom’s older sister Barbara, Gener is the self-proclaimed “black sheep” in the family. He has no filter, no concerns with what people think of him, and little restraint when it comes to adult beverages. He told me and Kev that he has spent a total of 2 1/2 years of his 60 years in jail (not all at once), and admits that he has made choices in his life which brought dishonor to his family name: “It’s not a good feeling when you realize that your selfish actions have caused pain to the people you love. I’ve brought a lot of heartache to my parents, and I know that.”
His brutal honesty surprised me. On the one hand, it’s easy to judge the person who never quite got his act together. On the other hand, I always admire people who take ownership of their mistakes instead of blaming others. Furthermore, I give him props for being a good parent. He was a house-dad for many years while his two daughters were growing up, and is still a proud and loving father today. His eldest daughter did not attend the reunion, but I hear that she is successful and is married to a good man. I was able to meet his youngest daughter, Andi, who is getting married this fall. She was a delightful young lady who brought her 2 dogs to the occasion, and it was easy to tell from our brief interactions that she has a good head on her shoulders.
Throughout the 3-day adventure in the middle of North Dakota, I made it a point to have meaningful conversations like these with as many of my cousins as I could. Most of these people I had never met, and the rest I had only seen briefly when we were kids. The cousins are all descedants of the 6 children of Vic and Florence Cumber- a total of 19 grandkids in our generation. One of them, Patty, recently passed away at the age of 47, and this gathering was in her honor. A total of 13 attended the reunion, many with spouses and kids in tow, as well as a few of the aunts and uncles (my mom’s siblings.) All total, there were 33 Cumber relatives who landed in Jamestown, aka “The Buffalo City.”
Time was short and I wanted the interactions to be more significant than simple small-talk, so I knew I had a challenge on my hands, especially considering my predisposition to shyness. I suspected that any compelling dialogue with them would have to be carefully crafted. I fearlessly asked questions that might seem too personal for a first visit: “Tell me about your dad.” “Were you and your sister always close?” “How have you been doing since Patty passed away?” I genuinely wanted to learn about these people and didn’t have time to beat around the bush. I felt like Barbara Walters, trying to quickly reach the moment that might involve some tears.
Although there were no tears (for the cousins, anyway-more on that later), I had a good chance to interact with these relative strangers, and came away with the impression that they are all quite amiable and sweet. The cousin who offered me use of her hotel room when I needed peace and quiet (Kathleen), the cousins who made sure we knew the agenda (Kenny), the cousins who gave us welcome bags and cooked an awesome steak/lobster dinner (Dick and Vicki), the cousin who made a “bio-book” for us (Cris)- it turns out, Cumbers are truly good-hearted and kind.
I tried to sit next to different people at each meal, and to say yes when invited to participate in any given activity. I even agreed to go for a walk with Andi and Deb (Kenny’s wife), who wanted to take the dogs for a stroll. Andi and Deb both turned out to be in much better physical condition than I am (as most people are). I was determined to hang with them as long as they wanted to walk, even when it appeared that we were about to cross state lines. My legs were hanging in there, despite being confused about the terrain of North Dakota, which I’ve always described as being “flatter than flat”. I realized that there are a few steep hills and valleys in the area-and we chose them all for our walk with the dogs. I stopped talking somewhere around the 90-minute mark in an effort to conserve oxygen, but listened to their conversation and was still happy to have been invited.
The physical discomfort of the walk was, of course, no match for the discomfort of the plane ride, but I expected that, since I don’t fly well. What I did not expect upon our arrival at the hotel, though, was how happy I was to see these people. I recognized almost all of them from the past or from family pictures. There were hugs and introductions all around, and it seemed as though everyone in the Jamestown Hampton Inn was affiliated with our event. I feared that I might miss someone and not greet them properly, causing me to want to hug everyone in the hotel, just in case. Surely there wouldn’t be anyone besides us wanting to visit this obscure state? I restrained myself from being overly zealous, as it turned out that North Dakota is a nice place for summer vacations, and our hotel was quite full.
The most obvious way that the state of North Dakota made us feel welcome was by being 25 degrees cooler than Georgia’s stifling heat. Although we were disappointed that it was too cool for water sports, it sure did feel nice to walk around in a light jacket and enjoy the humidity-free breeze. We spent most of our weekend at one of the family cabins at Spiritwood Lake, a lovely body of water slightly less than a square mile, surrounded by trees, grasslands and quaint homes. During our time at Spiritwood, we roamed the two adjacent family-owned properties and chimed in on whatever conversation or game might be taking place. The atmosphere was casual, the food was amazing and the view was beautiful. Small pockets of socializing would form, sometimes around the drinking or non-drinking family members, but mostly around the randomness of those who wanted to plant in one spot, juxtaposed with those who enjoyed circulating about the space.
It was during this time of circulation that I found my opportunities for Q&A. Although I missed a few people, I was able to participate in captivating discussions with many of my extended family, hearing stories that helped me to connect the dots in my own personal background. I’ve heard many family anecdotes from my mom over the years, but getting an opportunity to listen to other perspectives and fill in some gaps was truly engaging and intriguing.
To be perfectly honest, when I first learned of this reunion several months ago, my initial reaction was not one of tremendous interest. Time off from work for me and Kev is so precious, I couldn’t fathom the value of flying across the country to spend time with people I didn’t know. Readers of my blog recall that I was tentative about the invitation, knowing the potential for boredom or awkward moments. (see “Where Have You Been the Last 30 Years? https://angelamaskey.com/2014/03/22/where-have-you-been-the-last-30-years/). In fact, for months after the reunion was announced, I hovered around a 17% chance of attending, not wanting to commit the time and money to something so uncertain.
The thing that pushed me into the commitment zone was knowing that Kevin, Forrest and I would be traveling with my sister Lora, her husband Phil and their daughter Mary Catherine. Somehow I suspected that if the Maskeys were traveling with the Hydricks, we all stood a chance of having some fun, no matter what transpired with our relatives in the farming state. And to be sure, the time with the Hydricks was definitely one reason why the vacation was such a success. They were fun travel-buddies, supportive and good-natured, open for side excursions such as “Frontierland” and pictures with the “World’s Largest Buffalo”.
As promised, I will close with a little about a couple of the moments that saw me with tears in my eyes-the first was a visit to Pingree. Pingree is a minuscule town where some of my best childhood memories took place. Grandpa had a Texaco station and shop attached to the home where my mom lived as a child. In the 70’s, Grandpa build a new shop and a new house but left the old one standing. When we visited for vacation as kids, we were allowed to play in the empty structure, a place which filled our imaginations for hours on end. Somehow over the years I missed the news that this structure was torn down, leaving only stalks of corn growing where the foundation used to be. There was no rubble, no skeletal remains to spark any memories, and it made me quite sad.
Fortunately, our cousin Richard opened up the building referred to as the “new shop”. Although it is now closed, it still contains many mementos from the past, including old signs and parts, as well as the same old Coke machine from which we used to extract old-fashioned bottles of pop. As I stood in the strong wind outside of that shop, I realized that the town of Pingree was completely different from the town of my happy childhood memories, and my eyes filled with tears. Some of the best summer vacations of my youth took place in North Dakota, when I could play at Grandma’s old house, explore Grandpa’s old shop, and be pulled on an inner tube behind the boat at Spiritwood lake. The nostalgia hit me unexpectedly.
The most powerful moment of the weekend, though, came from Gener, who offered to take Forrest out for a chat about making good choices in life. Kev and I are always grateful for anyone who supports our efforts to make sure Forrest gets on a good path for his future, and I was touched by how much he cared.
In the end, it is ok that my grandparent’s old homes are gone, and the cabins at the lake are different. As a result of this Cousin Reunion, I may have built something more lasting-new relationships. Thanks to some kind gestures and honest conversations in North Dakota, hopefully I gained 33 new friendships. I look forward to future conversations with all of them, and I know Gener will be proud to watch me hold on to my Kevin, and I’m grateful to him for his willingness to offer some real-life advice to Forrest. Like a good relationship, your family is something you take good care to ensure the foundations stay strong for years to come.