Aunt Jean was one of my father's sisters. She lived in a small town which felt like a whole different realm, but was in reality about an hour away from my childhood home. The area in which she lived was a different zone, with sandy soil and long hot summers, perfect for growing tobacco. The drive to Aunt Jean's was always an adventure to see the fields of tobacco and the drying sheds which were like little barns. Now, tobacco is not a common field crop, but instead berries and ginseng have replaced it, grown under huge net-like covers. As well, fruit trees were abundant, fruits that could not be easily grown where I grew up, even though it was relatively close. Cherries were common and even soft fruits like peaches and plums.
When I think of Uncle Earl, I always see him smiling in my mind, but a wide, open-mouthed grin accompanied by a set of eyes that didn't line up properly, which was disconcerting to a young person. Uncle Earl had a glass eye. I don't actually know the whole story as to how he ended up with a glass eye, but it made him unusual and a wee bit frightening, although he was far from frightening himself.
In the summer, but not always every summer, my father's side of the family would gather for a pot luck in Aunt Jean and Uncle Earl's yard. There were trees and tables and raspberry bushes. If the gathering was in early summer, sometimes the cousins would pick and eat raspberries while the adults visited and had drinks and smoked under the shade of the trees in metal lawn chairs with criss-crossed colourful webbing, pulled out of a trunk of an Oldsmobile or a Chrysler.
There would be potato salad and rhubarb pie or maybe "church lady cherry cheesecake" and if we were lucky, a gigantic roasting pan of Uncle Ed's homemade cabbage rolls. I've never had a cabbage roll since that came close to his! I was the youngest of all the cousins, so I don't have as many memories of family gatherings and don't know all the "stories", but I still remember the atmosphere and the excitement of seeing people that I would only see once, or maybe twice a year.
And what brings me back to today, what twigged this memory, was the long raspy call of the cicada. Cicadas signal a real summer to me because they only emerge in the heat of summer. It wasn't until I was a bit older that I actually found out what made that sound. When I was very young, I truly thought someone was flying a small remote toy airplane in the neighbourhood. Cicadas are one of those interesting creatures with a story of their own, crawling out of their soil home after 13 or 17 years, only to live a short while, long enough for the males to call, then mate, and for the females to lay their eggs. It's a pretty wretched life in my opinion, but it's all they know, if cicadas have deep thoughts like that.
This is a picture of a cicada if you've never seen one. They are large insects, but it is usually the shed skin of the cicada that you notice, rather than the actual insect itself.
The days of gathering at Aunt Jean and Uncle Earl's are long gone, as the adults have aged and died, but Aunt Jean's daughter has carried on the tradition from time to time, inviting those now grown cousins to gather in her back yard in the same small town. There is a new generation of cousins, but there is still potato salad and pies and drinks, and cicadas.