Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Cowan Family Reunion

Ever since I can remember, the annual reunion of the Cowan family at the old Salem Campground in Covington, Georgia has loomed large in our family history. This yearly event has served as a kind of marker for the passage of time in so many ways. There are the series of age-worn photos of our "clan" standing under the trees that line the campground, in which we see each family member growing year after year, from little baby to child to teen to parent. There are the shared memories of the grounds themselves, of how Salem Campground used to be "way out in the country," thoughts that are peppered with the shared dismay that strip malls and fast food restaurants creep closer and closer to the once-rural but still serene locale. This unique spot under the trees on Salem Road combined with the annual gathering have given us all a sense of belonging and place, generation after generation.

My first memories of the Cowan Reunion are vague and unfocused – long tables covered in vinyl gingham and weighted down with platters of food, a lot of children I seem to be related to but whom I don’t know and can’t remember from the previous year, older aunts and uncles who without fail hug me or shake my hand and exclaim, “Well I swain…you have grown up so since I last saw you! You are becoming a young lady!” – all taking place in the hot, muggy midday sun of a third Sunday in August.

Images from later years are clearer. I remember my twin cousins, Sherry and Terry, attending a few reunions when we were all in our pre-teens. It was great fun because I seldom saw them, even though they lived close by in Atlanta. I remember other years sitting and fidgeting in the large sanctuary of Salem Methodist Church, trying to listen to old Zach Cowan (don’t ask me which one, apparently every generation had a “Zach”) talk about the Civil War but wondering instead when we could go and eat our dinner. I remember getting rained on many times, loving the feeling of walking from that hot, wet, green field into the chilly air-conditioned coolness of the main campground building. Mainly I remember that building, built entirely of wood in the 1930s, with its large dining area, a smaller sitting room with a huge stone fireplace, and two wings of quaint little hotel rooms, each holding two twin beds, a wardrobe, and a table and lamp. I used to love (and still do) to walk the dusty, old-smelling halls, checking doorknobs to find an open room, then going in and sitting on the bed, looking out the window, and imagining all the people back through all the years who had stayed in those rooms. As a young child I thought it was an actual hotel, and was amazed at the small, spartan furnishings. Those rooms always gave me a delightful shiver, a kind of ghostly feeling that I loved (and still do.)

But what stands out above everything else is the huge crowd of people, all somehow related to me, the multitude of generations and accents and backgrounds that spun around me like wild beautiful music, a quirky symphony with me at the center. These were my people and when I was with them, I belonged. The Sundays spent amongst my kin – squeezing past them in the crowded dining room to get to the piles of fried chicken and heaps of tomato sandwiches, sitting next to them in the rocking chairs on the big wraparound porch drowsing in the afternoon heat, listening to their stories told in unmistakable twangs and melodic dipthongs and hearing their laughter – mark my youth as no other event does.

As a young woman, I stopped going to the reunion for many years. I was in college, forging my way in the world, finding out who I was and where I fit in. I had no time for the long drive to Covington and no interest in sitting around with relatives who didn’t understand my lifestyle or my (now somewhat unusual) clothing. Although I wasn’t sad about missing the Sunday event each August, and didn’t really think about it all that much, on some level I felt the family carrying on as before, the exact same people still meeting and feasting and singing, as if they were somehow frozen in time on that porch and around those tables. In some part of my mind, the Cowan Reunion continued to go on exactly as it had in my youth.


But in the mid 1990s, as a new mother with my own family, I suddenly felt the need to go back. I wanted to hear the voices, feel the August sun and smell the old wood of the hotel. Most of all I wanted my children to have the experience of belonging somewhere, something they seldom experience in our constantly changing lives in Atlanta. So we began attending the yearly reunions again. My children had a wonderful time and I loved being a part of the big group again, catching up with everyone I had missed for the past decade. But I was surprised to find that so many of them were gone. Great numbers of distant relatives whose names I didn’t know but whose faces were familiar and dear to me were missing. Where was that sweet man who always had peppermints in his coat pocket? “Oh, Harold Stevens, he died last year,” my grandmother would tell me. What about the twins with identical flaming red hair? “Well, Mary Helen passed away about five years ago. But I hope Margaret will be here.” It was a shock to realize that during the years I had not attended the reunion, time had continued to pass. People had died or moved away, or simply disappeared from the table.

Soon others began to disappear, my own immediate family members. Gone was my sweet and funny grandfather, Papa, a man who laughed more than anyone I think I’ve ever known. One year my grandmother’s cousin Mary Louise, a former rival for the love of my grandfather before they were married, was there. The following year she was back, but pulling a little oxygen tank on wheels alongside her. And the next year, she was gone. My great-aunt Lula, who inexplicably used to tell me, “Julie, you know you’re the prettiest one of all” suddenly died. The next year her husband, Dallas, an ex-FBI agent who told fabulous stories and smoked a pipe, also disappeared. Then my great-aunt Kathryn, who was married to my grandmother’s brother (and Lula’s twin) Lewis, was gone. Months after her death, Uncle Lewis himself, one of my favorite relatives ever, who had an unmistakable voice that would boom out every time he saw me, “Well if it isn’t Ju-Ju House!!!” passed away, seemingly unable to continue without his wife.

Every year the loss was more apparent, and greater, as all members of this fabulous generation gradually passed on. Finally my sweet grandmother Nana, the one whose mother was a Cowan and who was not only the kindest grandmother a girl could have, but my direct link to the reunion, died after a stroke. And a few years later my own father was gone, succumbing to cancer. The losses that grew, one by one, at the Cowan reunion marked the passing of time and the losses we all experience, but in such a tangible, visible way. Where once we filled tables inside and out to overflowing, spilling into the next room and onto the porch, suddenly, it seemed, we barely seated a table and a half. And then, just one table. Finally last year there were only a handful of us, all clumped together at the end of one of the long tables, like survivors of a shipwreck gathered together for warmth. The food on the big tables in the center of the dining room mirrored the human losses: the freshly-fried chicken had been replaced with KFC, or grocery store chicken. The amazing home grown tomatoes were gone, as the cousin who always brought heaping plates of them died years ago. The Junior League cookbook casseroles and deviled eggs bursting with filling have been replaced with Stouffers corn pudding and Publix pimento cheese sandwiches.

It is clear that the reunion is in danger of being wiped from existence. This year, my cousin and I are in charge of planning the event. We have actually discussed officially ending it, telling the 15 or so relatives who still attend that it’s no use, there’s no reason to continue to hold on to something that has become outmoded, outdated, and no longer wanted. The “younger generation” is not interested, or too busy, or just doesn’t care. The older generation is gone. And those of us in the middle, having tried to come up with creative lures (A family cookbook! Bring a recipe to share! A book of oral history! Bring your favorite family story!) that led absolutely nowhere are just plain tired. We think it may be time to simply let go, and officially mark its passing in a solemn but honorable way.

Only time will tell, and for all I know there is going to be a massive surge of energy and interest in just a few years. But today I grieve for all that has been lost so far, and for all that we risk losing from this point forward. If the reunion dies, what does it mean for our family? As the banner of all we were and all we have been, would we disappear as a unified group once the event was gone? As hard as it is to imagine, the Cowan Family reunion, having been celebrated for almost 85 years, just may be a thing of the past.

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