In a summer frayed by toxic campaigns, a mass shooting and political stalemate, our family packed the car with an ice chest and lawn chairs, fried chicken and potato salad, then hit the road to reconnect with the ties that bind.
We were headed to the annual reunion of my late father-in-law’s people, who continue to insist, in this age of Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter, on seeing each other in the flesh.
Because we connect with this clan just once a year, my children can’t always remember who’s who. And so this yearly car ride usually includes a refresher course in genealogy, as my wife and I map out which aunt is married to which uncle, which cousin descended from which branch of the family tree, and who just gave birth to the bright baby who will be passed from arm to arm as a welcome into the fold.
This lesson in lineage can sound as complicated as one of those Old Testament passages in which Hebrews begat, begat, begat a whole nation into being.
There’s a biblical quality, too, in how the reunion crowd arranges itself in the reception hall each year — each wing of the family staking out its own long lunch table, the scattered tribes of Israel collected, if only briefly, under one tent.
We arrived at the end of a gravel road in a quiet corner of a state park to find the meeting hall and, just beyond the back door, an inflatable water slide where the smallest relatives ambled like ants from top to bottom.
It was a lovely spot for a reunion, though I noticed that the reception center was probably due for a new roof. It’s the kind of deferred maintenance that points to our politics these days — the endless bickering about budgets, as the things we’re supposed to nurture for the next generation molder into disrepair.
Maybe the mending of the country starts here, I thought to myself, as this klatch of cousins traded embraces, swapped stories, then stood in line for cake and pie.
Perhaps it’s in retracing the roots of our origins — in seeing the familiar family nose and signature eyes in subtle variations on dozens of faces — that we begin to recall what we have in common within this family, and within the broader family of man.
Our family reunion unfolded this year in the shadow of another mass murder, renewing the endless argument about how we might stop the next one.
If there’s a common sickness touching every crazed gunman, it’s his profound disconnection from the web of family that so often helps keep the rest of us sane.
That’s why, I guess, this family into which I have married gathers like this each year — to redraw a circle of belonging, the big hands clasping the tiny ones, an answer to the anguish of the headlines. In holding each other, we cherish one thing — perhaps the only thing — that endures.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.