Deep Summer Retreat for a Far-Flung Family

Have you ever noticed that when something is done in the family once or certainly twice, it becomes a tradition? Well, here’s my summer tradition! For those of you who follow my blog postings, you will recognize where I headed this past week – Wintergreen Resort, perched high in the mountains of western Virginia. But this time, rather than a quiet retreat to heal my body and spirit from my incessant working on my latest book, we made the trek in a caravan of three cars. Inside the cars were my two sons, Brian and Kevin, and their four kids – Cadie, Zach, Becca, and Ben – aged 9, 11, 12, and 16 respectively.

Because there were seven of us in all, we split up into two condos near each other. The lead photo to the left of this posting shows the front of condo 354 where Kev, Zach, Cadie and I have stayed for now three summers of fun. Bri, Ben and Becca were just down the way, in 321. However, it was pure togetherness because Cadie did “sleepovers” with her cousin Becca each night, and all breakfasts were in Mom’s condo – little ones of all sizes in and out all day. (I should say this was Dads’ time with kids as the moms were back at home, working at their respective professions – pediatrician and teacher.)

Have you ever noticed that when something is done in the family once or certainly twice, it becomes a tradition? Anyway, this is our summer tradition and we have developed rules for the occasion, rules like “everyone does his or her own thing!” So other than all mealtimes, we pretty much all headed out in different directions after breakfast – I for a vigorous mountain hike, the various kids and dads headed to the tennis court, swimming pool, X-Box (I’m told that is something like an internet game room?), nearby lake, or zip line! Anyway, we had a great time. As this is now our tradition; we will of course make the same trek next summer.

Reflecting on our joy-filled (but exhausting!) gathering, my sons and little ones traveled from afar for this reunion of brothers and cousins. Brian (second photo below) traveled from Miami where he works as psychologist and business administrator for Beacon, through Durham, North Carolina, where he owns a home and where the kids – Ben and Becca – attend school. Kevin (third photo), Brian’s younger brother by 19 months, traveled with Zach and Cadie the farthest – from Riverside, California, where Kev is a political scientist on the faculty at UC-Riverside. So you see, it’s not easy for all of us to gather, and it is so wonderful when we can.

After my morning hike I had about an hour of downtime in order to do some reading while everyone was out doing their exercise thing. Before we left Richmond, on a whim while I was in Barnes & Noble, I picked up a paperback of the classic travelogue memoir, Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck – originally published in 1962. I never actually had read this seminal work which in turn stimulated other travel memoirs. Again, for a lark, I thought it would be fun and light reading.

But Steinbeck’s work was not always so light. Interspersed within the pages of travel humor and various trials with Charley the poodle, Steinbeck added some poignant philosophical musings. And given our gathering from various places across the country, from coast to coast almost, I was struck by his discussion of rootlessness in the American people. He says:

Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection? The pioneers, the immigrants who peopled the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed home and are still there. But every one of us, except the negroes forced here as slaves, are descended from the restless ones, the wayward ones who were not content to stay at home. Wouldn’t it be unusual if we had not inherited this tendency? … Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need. Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient is the need, the will, the hunger to be somewhere else. (pp. 103-4, Penguin Books edition, 1986)
I reflected on Steinbeck’s thoughts about roots, or lack thereof, as I took my morning hikes (see hiking sign photo!). And at some point, I counted the number of homes I myself have had in my lifetime up until now. Not counting time living in dormitories and such as a student, I, in fact, have had ten homes in towns and cities stretching from my childhood in Kentucky and northern Indiana to a Boston suburb, to Bloomington, Indiana, to Columbia, Maryland, Lexington, Virginia, and now Richmond – 19 years here and the longest I’ve stayed anywhere in my life, same house, home to me, the closest to roots I have ever put down.

But then, reflecting further in the midst of this reunion, I dived deeper down into my sense of place, and of course felt the truth of the old saw that home is where the heart is. And my home, as always and forever, is where I gather with my family – in a place or in my heart.

Well, I couldn’t go to Wintergreen without also taking a book or two of Mary Oliver’s poems. After breakfast and looking out at the scene in the last photo below (I got up before everyone else for some quiet time of my own, prayers and all), I read a poem of hers titled Deep Summer. The first stanza starts off with the image of a mockingbird, opening his throat out in the wild, singing some wisdom and not minding if we listen in and maybe learn something. And if we listen hard, this is what we hear:

… the wholesome
of being alive
on a patch

of this green earth
in the deep
pleasures of summer.
What a bird!
(From “Deep Summer” by Mary Oliver, found in Evidence, Beacon Press, 2009, p. 29)
And what a time we had on this patch of green earth! The seven of us returned to the house in Richmond and had one last dinner together – pizza of course! – and the next day all departed to their own far-flung places. And the house was very, very quiet for a while until I got used to the sounds of silence again. And then this final thought: Our roots are sunk deep into our souls as we gather as we can. And rejoice in the doing. Until next year this time. This is our tradition!