Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin
As we planned our route through the midwestern and northern states a few days ahead of time (oh, how our processes have changed since we began) we realized that we would be crossing paths with Brad’s North Carolinian cousins on their summer vacation in Wisconsin. Cousin Jeremy’s wife Jen grew up here, so they make an annual trip to her homeland to visit grandparents, play with cousins, and attend summer camp. We had a blast with this family in Raleigh during a planned visit in March, but seeing them again in July just ended up being a happy accident. Not only did we get to see Jeremy and his family, the youngest brother from this set of brothers, Josh, drove up from Kansas City with his family of 7 to spend a few days with us. Seeing these family members completes our list of seeing every one of our family members this year. (Except for one cousin that lives in South Africa…but I feel like maybe we get a free pass on that.)
The fantastic thing is that there were many family members on Brad’s side that I only met on our wedding day. When Josh and his family arrived I started to say the clique, “Great to see you again!”, but instead he beat me to it with, “Nice to meet you again.” That’s really true isn’t it? We met half our lifetime ago, and only briefly. This is meeting each other again.
We spent about 4 days all together, our 3 families with a total of 11 children between us. Plus Jen’s brother runs a fireworks stand each July, so his 4 kids were also thrown into our mix. The majority of our shenanigans were hosted by Jen’s parents at her childhood home. If that sounds a bit confusing, it’s only because it was.
A highlight of the visit was getting invited to be part of Jen’s dad’s +24 to attend his friend’s 4th of July Party at the family farm. Our connection to the event was through Jen’s dad’s friend Jerome, one of the 8 brothers who grew up on this farm and host this annual party. So armed with this stranger’s name as a password, we caravanned in our truck and 3 packed minivans into the farming hills of Wisconsin for the evening. As Jeremy put it, it was a wonderful slice of Americana. There were hayrides through a corn field, sack and wheelbarrow races, and an old dairy barn full of new kittens. We enjoyed a downright Wisconsin feast – including the important local staples of sauer kraut with dumplings, cheesy hash browns, and Leinenkugels beer from the local brewery.
About 200 people, all loosely connected by the band of 8 brothers hosting this shindig, were spread out across a large field on blankets and lawn chairs, mostly segregated into large family units, eating and drinking, laughing and playing volleyball as we waited for the skies to darken. And then the hosts set off an epic fireworks display that left me dazzled, but surprised that such large explosives were legal for personal use. It was lovely and fun, nostalgic and delicious.
In those 4 days it felt like we packed about a month’s worth of family time in. The conversations were refreshing, the laughs were deep, and the reconnections breathed new life into relationships too long ignored. Our kids played together for hours, sometimes late into the night when the adults just couldn’t stop the conversation, until children just fell asleep where ever they were. It’s a sad fact that our girls didn’t really even know these cousins existed before this trip, but a true joy that now they are some of their favorite friends. We dared the clock to get later and later with each evening of fun, and by our final morning together everyone was rising late and groggy, exhausted but unwilling to miss a moment of our brief time together.
Jeremy put it so well in a text we received as we drove away from Chippewa Falls:
“So exhausted and so grateful! That was a spontaneous dose of family magic. All the stars aligned and our roving, rotating cast created an incredibly smooth 4 day run of mildly epic harmony and good vibes! On paper, that never should have worked: 4 groups of siblings parented by 3 sets of parents at 3 different locations, hosted by a couple in their 70’s who were only slightly related to half the group. Throw in fireworks, swimming, mosquitos, teenagers, nap times, dietary restrictions, shared food, adventurous stream exploration, ticks, flying Kubb batons, etc…and what just happened can only be described as pure serendipity.”
Translation: We are so lucky that no one died. And we are pretty confident that no one did, but getting a head count on 15 kids is pretty tricky, so no promises.
We chose our next destination only a couple of hours north so that we wouldn’t have a long traveling after all of this wonderful, exhausting fun. At a campsite just outside of Superior, Wisconsin, across the waters of Lake Superior from Duluth, Minnesota, we spent a few days catching up on all the things as a family – we slept, we worked, we got groceries – it took us a few days to reset and get back to what is now our “normal life”. The campground had a pool and the girls loved swimming all hours of every day. I had several chances to sit beside the pool and read, as well as pet the 3 month old shiatsu named Martini in the office. It was a great chance to relax and rest up after the busy, fantastic time with family.
As we have travelled across this country for all of these months, we have focused our time and attention on 2 very different things: destinations and people. The destinations have been amazing. We’ve seen tourist attractions, historical sites, breathtaking vistas, and landscapes within our nation that we’d never seen before. We’ve learned about US history, geography, and culture. But the experience of visiting so many people has affected me in some unexpected ways. We’ve had the great joy of spending quality time with many close friends, like the Moore’s in Missouri or the Edwards in Oklahoma. We’ve also visited friends that we hadn’t spoken to in years like the Elliotts in Abilene or the Reeds in Alabama. We stayed with siblings in Orlando, D.C., and Chicago to see how they live and work in their communities. We enjoyed an extended 3 month stint with my parents, soaking up the grandparent time that is feast or famine when you live thousands of miles apart. And we’ve been reintroduced to long lost cousins – people who share our grandparents, our childhood stories, and many of our goals for the future even though we haven’t seen each other for almost 15 years. These connections feel powerful. This year I’ve had a glimpse of the vastness of this nation and felt some of the cultural divides that separate us. I’ve interacted with people on both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, and felt the deep loneliness of a world view that is shifting to encompass my countrymen that are much more different than me than previously realized. But in contrast I have also felt the deep joy of sitting with people at 1:00am and hearing the chorus of “me too”, “me too”.
Our family will never forget visiting Bryce Canyon or the Lincoln Memorial, New York City or Death Valley. But we may perhaps be even more affected by the slumber parties with cousins in North Carolina, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, the board games with the Waldroop’s in Oklahoma, or holding baby Andrew in Texas. Walking among the giant redwoods in Northern California is magical, but maybe what will matter more in the long run will be the campfire with Jeremy and Josh until almost 3am, the traveling tea party with Mimi and Aunt Cheryl, or all the hugs and kisses from our 101 year old Ma. These connections of friendship, family ties, and love are really what sustains us. The support and the love we receive from these people is what has made us who we are. So these simple moments of sharing a washing machine or a recipe, a holiday tradition, a conversation, a toy, or a taco dinner – these moments are maybe what has been the most profound.