Yesterday we went to the New Year’s open house at cousin Fred’s, a gathering that has been going on for at least 50 years. There was a buffet of corned beef, cabbage, black-eyed peas, rye bread; an appetizer table of party mix, cocktail sausages, cheese crackers with pecans from Fred’s father’s side of the family; coolers of beer and a table of pies, candy, and cookies on the back porch. This party started at Aunt Doris and Uncle Scratch’s house, Fred’s parents. Maybe my family went when I was young; I remember lots of visits to Doris and Scratch’s, but not specifically New Year’s. I’ve made New Year’s at Fred’s about once a decade so far; now that we live in West Virginia it will be more. When we were first married, we came to West Virginia for Christmas and on to Robert’s sister in North Carolina for New Year’s. The year Robert’s father died, we reversed it, and made it to Fred’s. After that, it was more than 10 years before we made it east at Christmas. No-one knew we were in town but my brother, so it was quite a surprise when we showed up.
Last time I was there, there were still two aunts; the time before that, my grandmother’s sister, too. Only three generations were bodily present yesterday; my generation have become the eldest, but are just now getting grandchildren. My father was the only one of his siblings who stayed in his hometown. His brothers joined the service for Korea and stayed, one mostly in California, the other in New Mexico, and didn’t make it home much. One sister moved just forty miles away, and we were closest to her family, visiting back and forth and sharing holidays. Two sisters and their cousin made a cluster in South Charleston and Saint Albans. Half of my cousins in my father’s family were older than I, but all the younger ones but my brother and cousin Mark were in other states and not around much. So I was always the baby cousin, trailing behind and looking up.
We talked about family history, life and death, old family scandals, the conditions needed to grow really hot horseradish. I brought a couple of scrapbooks put together by our Aunt Elizabeth, with clippings on us, our parents, our grandparents, letters telling stories of our grandparents growing up. Fred brought out a black and white quilt and Marg and I speculated on the maker, like art historians, comparing the style, the binding, the quilting. Neither of us really knows, but we think it might have been made by our great-grandmother Jane Hill deGruyter. I set a knuckle down to measure the stitches per inch, and Marg told a story of Aunt Elizabeth doing the same thing to a quilt Marg had made. We figured out cousin Mike’s parents were distant cousins, both descended from the famous Hughes family, early settlers. Fred brought out his dulcimer and persuaded me to play; it got passed around and most of us tried it eventually. Marg’s husband Bob told me that even though he’s lived in Kentucky for 45 years, he still tells people he’s from West Virginia. His son lives on the family farm here now. We talked about the importance of family stories, history, and community. We left with more cookies than we came with and horseradish roots.