One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides for ever.
I got to the lake before most anyone in the family. It was too hot for 10 AM, even in July, and the humidity felt tropical. I found slight refuge under a tired overhead fan in the “snack bar” and settled in with a fresh coffee to wait.
Sixty years ago I was a 10-year-old watching the heavy screen doors bang shut in the snack bar. I had recalled that sound the night before, and it hasn’t changed a bit. Small children and big people in bathing suits were still banging through those doors and buying too expensive soft drinks, water toys, candy bars, tanning creams. Young folks wearing “staff” t-shirts and lifeguard gear forced me their best grudging smiles. They probably don’t see many old men in street clothes (long pants and shirts) hanging out in the snack bar for an hour or two. The whole place has a strict prohibition against alcohol so I wasn’t indulging that refuge. I had come for the past, and I felt very much like a visitor from a distant time. Most residents of this time took little notice of me.
Through screened windows I looked out over the tranquil lake. Little was changed from 60 years ago. Small children waded carefully, even warily into shallow waters at the shoreline. Farther out, older children launched themselves gleefully off platforms into the cool cedar waters of South Jersey. Older children and adults picked up younger children and flung them into the air, screeching as they sailed briefly over their inevitable water landing. Others submarined under the water surprising the unaware by grabbing their legs from below and taking them under for a playful dunking. I saw nothing I had not participated in 60 years ago. I could even remember the look of tea-colored water as I swam submerged looking for those legs to surprise — and the temperatures at various levels in the water, blissfully cooler as you went deeper.
Into this reverie walked Alice and her Tracy Family Reunion t-shirt. Alice is the daughter of my cousin Jack Tracy. I don’t know if I’d ever met her. This was my first of the annual reunions in over 20 years, and back then Alice was living in Texas, having “followed a man,” she said. She also said she doesn’t recommend doing that. For lack of a better title, Alice is the reunion “organizer” now. Having returned to South Jersey from Texas, she manages a Facebook private group for the family and the annual reunion details. As much as anything it is a function of honoring her father and his high regard for family and his unparalleled lust for life. We lost Jack Tracy last year, a very sad thing for all of us.
Alice dragged me down the shoreline a hundred yards to a covered stand of picnic tables where the family was gathering. There were 25 or 30 folks there by now. Some I knew, some I did not. Such was not the case 60 years ago. Even as a 10-year-old I knew every one of the aunts, uncles and countless cousins, probably 50 or 60 people or more. And every one of them knew me. The family was close in those days. We spent a lot of time visiting with one another and celebrating holidays together. The extended family was the social fabric of our lives. In her later years, my mother said she found the Tracys to have been “clannish.” I could not disagree, but I also lay that at the feet of the Irish immigrant experience. The older family was still under the heavy influence of those who first came to this country. As unwelcome immigrants, the family, and the Catholic Church, were the only things you could depend upon. Times have changed, a lot.
The family, though much larger, is now widely dispersed. The folks in Alaska and upstate New York and Tennessee and Thailand are not making the trip for a Saturday by the little lake in South Jersey. Also, we are older, at least those I know and know about. At the reunion 60 years ago, you would hardly have seen a person over age 40. It was all young adults with growing families — and virtually everyone wore a bathing suit and got into the water at some point. (Except for Uncle Jim Tucker who bedeviled the children by telling them the water in that lake was too dry for him when they asked why he wasn’t swimming.) This year there were few people under age 40, and I don’t recall more than five or six children. I recall a couple of children taking boat rides, but it’s possible no one actually went for a swim. I saw a few folks playing a horeshoes-like game, but I don’t know if there was any other physical activity. Sixty years ago it was softball and badminton and volleyball and horseshoes, etc. This year’s reunion seemed like it could have been held in a church basement — and been a lot more comfortable given the heat.
Sixty years ago a generation of younger folks took great pleasure in getting together at what was a premier resort of those times. A day at the lake was a big deal. Today, I think that lake, pleasant as it is, has outlived its appeal to most younger folks. We now have huge “water parks” and sprawling amusement parks, ala Six Flags, Hershey Park, etc. These would seem to be the places young families would go to share good times nowadays — if not a Disney resort or an ocean cruise. And for the most part, they would be having that time with those of their own generation. That younger generation exists in our family, of course. They are the ones not coming to the quaint little lake of past generations. And that’s why I don’t see them much — and why I have to ask, do I know you?
There was only one young couple, under age 30 and with a child under age two at our event this year. Seemed like they were only there for a couple of hours, perhaps from a sense of obligation. Or maybe the heat was too much for a child that age. I had a defining moment with them though. Amanda and Sam live just south of Baltimore in the Brooklyn area of Anne Arundel County. I thought they would be amazed to know that 85 years ago the Tracy family, for a time, lived where they now live. The 1930 U.S. Census has my five-year-old father and his sisters, brothers and parents living around 4th Street and Hillcrest Avenue in Brooklyn. An astonishing connection to me, it seemed to mean little if anything to Amanda and Sam. And I realized they do not know those people I consider family, and they probably know nothing about them. Their child is six generations down the line from the family that lived in 1930 Brooklyn. I’m four generations down the line from the family that left Ireland and settled in New Haven, Connecticut. Except for genealogical research, I know little, if anything, about that ancestral family. And therein lies the tale. One generation passes away and another takes its place.
Nowadays my cousin, Paul Reagle, and I might see one another at times around New Saint Mary’s Cemetery in Bellmawr, NJ. That’s our little family reunion now. With one exception, all the aunts and uncles who 60 years ago were lakeside with us are there. Our cousin, Jack, who championed the family reunion is there. They all wear granite name tags, and we don’t have to ask, “Who are you?” One generation passes away and another takes its place.
So, I took a trip in time this warm summer. Turns out I went to a family reunion at the old lake, but the family reunion did not come to me.