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Family traditions the next generation

December 18, 2005|By BOB MAGINNIS

In every family that's worthy of that name, there is one person who makes sure that funerals aren't the only time that everyone gets together.

On my father's side of the family, it's my cousin Patty. Every year she and her husband host a December family reunion in their home. It's a big undertaking because all the cousins have had children and now those children are having babies, too.

After a hearty meal, Patty passes out mimeographed lyrics and plays the piano while we sing Christmas carols until we are hoarse from laughing at the cousins assigned to sing the "five golden rings" part of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," who always try to sing loudest of all.

The moment is as familiar as the curly tail of Patty's little pug dog, but we laugh anyway as we continue a tradition that began when she, I and the other cousins were in grade school.

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Back then it was her mother, my Aunt Helene, playing the piano and her father, my Uncle Harry, singing the hymn Jerusalem, written by the poet William Blake, in a deep voice that could have been Tennessee Ernie Ford's, albeit without the twang.

I wrote a column on Harry last year and Pat said she would like nothing better than another one on our growing-up days.

In those days - the 1950s, that is - the run-up to Christmas began for us when the weather started to turn cold and my Aunt Catherine would come to our house with my cousins and a large cardboard box. Cousins Jimmy and Kathleen were a year or two older than my sister and I. And when their clothes were outgrown, some were passed on to us.

My mother opened Catherine's cardboard box and made us try on the coats and such. No one asked if you liked it or not. Unless it was too small, you wore it.

I do not remember feeling deprived because we had less, because everybody we knew had less, at least when I was very young. Later, when my father and my uncles began to prosper, they still valued family enough to spend time together whenever possible.

They vacationed together, not always in the same house, but mostly in Cape May, N.J. For a child, it was a wonderful place. Until the 1962 hurricane washed much of it out to sea, the beach at Cape May seemed as wide as a football field, although I am sure that it was only that way through a child's eyes. I remember standing at the edge of the surf looking back at beach umbrellas and thinking they looked like tiny pinwheels.

We played in the surf until we were exhausted and had swallowed so much sea water that we didn't want salt on our dinners. Then, before they put us to bed, the grown-ups washed us up. There's a treasured family photo of me and my cousin Kathleen sitting together in the suds in a galvanized tub.

Sometimes in the evenings, we went to a restaurant alongside the docks where the boats had unloaded big steels barrels of clams, which made creaking noises as the saucer-sized mollusks opened and closed their shells.

None of it seemed remarkable then, but no parent today would allow a 7-year-old to wander around the boardwalk unsupervised or to go exploring underneath Cape May's big music hall, which sat on pilings above the surf.

At Christmas we saw all of the relatives again and some who didn't come to the beach, like Aunt Kit Buckley, who sounded as if she had come straight from Ireland. In later years there was Uncle Jack Hayes, who enjoyed telling a joke the way some people savor a good steak.

He would get to the party early, then tell his best fresh joke to every person as they entered, modifying it so that each one heard something slightly different and so he could laugh with them until everyone was red-faced and out of breath.

Christmas was also another chance to see my Uncle Paul, who of all the adults made sure that he spent some time entertaining the children with stories of his growing-up times during the Depression in the hard coal country of Pennsylvania.

He told us about the town swimming pool, which without modern pool chemicals developed a green scum on top of the water, so that when you surfaced, you looked like the monster from the black lagoon.

He told us about seeing the movie "King Kong" and having a nightmare that the big ape was reaching in the bedroom window to get him. He tried to convince us that in his sleep he had jumped up to the room's wooden ceiling, and had gotten splinters caught on the back of his pajamas.

Then there were his grand schemes for getting rich, spun not to impress us with his intelligence, but just to amuse us. My father's favorite was the one in which the distinguished, gray-haired man - maybe my dad - would sell rich widows on the idea of having formal photographic portraits taken of their beloved pets.

My father and his brothers are gone now, as are his sisters. One of them traveled the world, while another got to know members of Congress on a first-name basis. But they never let their success fool them into thinking that what they'd accomplished was more important than renewing family ties on a beach in New Jersey.

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