Brushing errant Hannah Montana flip-flops out of the path of the screen door, my Aunt Jean greeted us with North Dakota-sized hugs and an apology: “You’ll have to excuse the chaos.”
I could hear my cousins’ kids screaming – with glee, I supposed – from out back, where the lip of Big Cormorant Lake kisses the just-mowed lawn and laps gently against the dock. Three of my other cousins, who had been lounging on the deck in their bathing suits, filed into the house for more hugs and the obligatory game of pass the baby.
“OK, I think I just heard the buzzer – time’s up, Annie,” my cousin Stephanie hovered expectantly over my other cousin, who wasn’t ready to give Elodie up just yet but also wasn’t going to argue with the family “rulemaker.”
Within an hour, the Martin family’s newest member had been held by no less than ten relatives, had played peek-a-boo with four second-cousins, and had been dipped in the lake. Thus began Elodie’s introduction to her extended family.
Mamie, Elodie and I spent a week at my Uncle Dennis’s lake cabin in Minnesota, where the long northern days are spent in the constant revolution of dragging flapping kids around the lake on inner tubes, preparing for and cleaning up after grand buffet-style meals and telling stories and cackling while crammed altogether on a good-sized but still too-small deck. At its apex, 22 members of my family tree partook in the Lake Cabin summertime festivities. Between servings of Aunt Jean’s pasta salad and Aunt Meri’s famous buns, I rediscovered the charm, albeit chaotic, of the big family get-together.
My mother and her four brothers and sisters grew up on a farm in North Dakota, in a town – still little more than a cluster of barns, silos, and ranch-style houses – where a sign at the city limits reads “Hensler, Don’t Blink.” Living nearby were my mom’s six cousins, the charming singing Pfliger sisters, whose real names are still ambiguous to me since they’ve always been called Dolly, Hippie, Punky, Auntie Em and the like (which, incidentally, are nicknames that have no semblance to their given names.) My mom (AKA) is one of the few who doesn’t still live in North Dakota. And Elodie and I are, by default, two of the small handful of Martin “bloods” (more on this later) who aren’t saturated with Martin family antics on a regular basis.
Every family has its traits, its particular whimsies that make it your family, and your “special” family, alone. Whereas the rest of the Martin/Pfligers are neck-deep in family togetherness throughout the year, I only see my family a handful of times each year. It is during these times, when bratz hair glitter is flying, kuchen is being eaten and the Martins are in fine form, that I can grasp the strength of the ties that bind, and I glimpse the depth of the roots that connect me, and now my daughter, to a people who share not only blood but history too.
My 90-year-old Great Aunt Louise, or “Ma” to us and “Great Ma” to Elodie, came out to the lake cabin for supper one of those pink sunset evenings last week. She brought a pair of pink cowboy boots for Baby Elle. “This is something your great-grandma would have gotten for you,” she told her. Although those words mean nothing to her now, those adorable pink boots will forever link my daughter to her Great Grandma Erna, Ma Louise’s sister and my maternal grandmother, who died of leukemia when my mom was barely into her first year of primary school.
So there’s the old history, the sweet tidbits that are tossed like treasures into the Oreo Salad of Martin family life. There are the new, silly stories too, like this Martin “blood” business. It was during my wedding in 2006 in southern Arizona, and all the Pfligers and a lot of the Martins were drinking wine in the house they were staying in on a dimly lit road in Tubac. When the burglar alarm went off in the shadowy house next door, it was decided that the “non-bloods,” or those married (not born) into the family, would be the first to be sent into the darkness… the first to be sacrificed in the name of Martin family safety… and now, the first to be the brunt of Martin family teasing, which there was plenty of all week at the lake cabin.
So I suppose it could be called chaos: all the good-natured laughs at the expense of the non-bloods among us; trips around the lake hauling hollering 7- and 8-year-olds on tubes; a refrigerator brimming with leftovers; a deck covered with used towels and dripping wet people; and a baby who was not put down for six days straight. But if that is chaos, bring it on.
“It’s more like barely contained pandemonium,” Aunt Jean later said of the annual week at the lake cabin, a tradition I hope Baby Elle will come to love as much as the rest of us do. After a week’s-worth of pat-a-cake, peek-a-boo and games of tickle the baby, I don’t think Elodie would opt for a family gathering with less commotion. Not that she has much of an option – she is a blood, after all, and seems to thrive on the madness.
On one of the final evenings at the lake house, Elodie was lying on the floor in her pajamas when 4-year-old J.D. came storming into the room brimming with clowning, boyish behavior. Blasting in, banging his fist against his head and spinning in a post- root beer float buzz, he finally came to rest with a bang on the carpet next to Elle. She flinched, startled, and I thought she would cry. Yet instead of sobbing, the moment served as the setting for one of those memories that the Martins keep making, each and every time we get together. Elodie laughed. A great, big, wonderful baby laugh. Her first belly laugh. And so we all laughed. And J.D. laughed, and punched himself in the stomach. And so Baby Elle laughed again, and we all laughed some more, and on it went – J.D. punching and banging, Elodie giggling, and the rest of us laughing ’til tears brimmed in our eyes.
Some would, probably, define the scene as chaos. Or perhaps absurdity. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.