The End of Summer Feels Like Family Reunion Day at the Lake

Writer Latria N. Graham reminisces about the family reunions of her childhood at the edge of a local lake. Music, fishing, and the richness of memory keep the spirit of those traditions alive long after the family has changed.

August 27, 2021
High angle view of friends eating at backyard barbecue


High angle view of friends eating at backyard barbecue

Photo by: Granger Wootz/Getty

Granger Wootz/Getty

This essay is part of our Quintessential Party in the Park package. Read more stories and get outdoor recipes and tips here.

It is just a scrap of t-shirt now, but this bit of red and white fabric holds a long-loved memory of family reunions past. Family Reunion Day always started with a road trip, where I oversaw the music. I thumbed through my father’s leatherette cassette tape storage case trying to find the right selection to set the mood. My fingers traced the sharp square edges of the cases — The Isley Brothers, The Manhattans, Atlantic Starr, The Stylistics, The Spinners — all our favorites were there. My goal was to keep the energy up, so my parents, who probably worked an overnight shift hours before, would stay awake, and my younger brother, smushed in the backseat next to a giant cooler, wouldn’t keep asking “are we there yet?”

Family Reunion Day was our family’s way of closing out summer. Before the back-to-school shopping started and the mills and processing plants called my aunts and uncles back to work, we would have one last barbecue before it got too cold to be outside on the lip of the lake.

The location changed from time to time, but we always found ourselves in a park where the kids could roam without getting into too much trouble and the adults could find a seat in the shade without too much hassle. I knew we were almost there when the sound of the pavement changed — we were going from the interstate to the highway. As I entered my teenage years, my concept of time got better and when our blue gray Mitsubishi Galant turned off the highway and into the park, Family Reunion by The O’Jays would start to play through the car’s speakers.

While our parents prepared the food and reminisced about the good old days, those of us with nothing to do spent our morning coming up with choreography to Rose Royce's Car Wash. The aunties in charge of the boombox pretended to be radio hosts and music by Aretha Franklin, Betty Wright, Donna Summer, Cheryl Lynn and Teena Marie pumped out the speakers. The men that weren't tending the charcoal grills went fishing because it gave them something to do, even if they couldn't take their catch/prizes home.

The food wasn't fancy — hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken quarters, corn — we didn’t need much to have a good time, and if peach cobbler and pound cake were on the dessert table, everything was alright. We piled our plates high and as we ate, our parents got lost in melodies of the music from their youth. Someone would teach the dance novices how to do the electric slide. We were outside and we were together and for our elders, who were just two, at most three generations away from enslavement, that was enough. We always ended the day with one last snapshot in our matching t-shirts to commemorate memories made with cousins we might not see again for decades.

Twenty years have passed since my first family reunion, and we no longer gather at the edge of the lake. Even before the pandemic our face-to-face interactions were replaced by FaceTime and phone conversations. The internet has become the tie that binds our family together. Through Facebook and TikTok I can see my relatives with their immediate families, in their matching t-shirts doing the “Renegade” or whatever the latest dance craze happens to be. Our gatherings aren’t what they used to be but they’re a precious reminder of important things — resilience, heritage, and memory.

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