The event that brings this group together occurs yearly at Cousin Toodie’s place out near the Alabama River.

Southerners, several of them have said, are more family-oriented than lesser breeds from outside the realm. I do not profess to know if this is actually true, but two Southern traditions would seem to support it. One is the annual cemetery cleaning and homecoming at rural churches; the other is the family reunion.

I thought about these matters not so long ago while standing around in the shade at the annual July Fourth Barbecue held by my wife’s fascinating family. This is a large, and sometimes loud, clan, whose members are not only fond of each other, most of the time, but generally friendly to those who came in by writ instead of birth. One of her rancher kin once remarked that bringing new blood into the herd is how they developed the Santa Gertrudis. It is good to be an in-law to such a bunch.

The gathering spanned both generation and inclination, as befits a family that has spawned successful farmers, doctors, businessmen and women, railroaders, teachers, the editor an of acclaimed magazine, merchants and marketers, the head of a nation association, a cop, a lawyer, and a 45-year Baptist Sunday school teacher.

The event that brings this group together occurs yearly at Cousin Toodie’s place out near the Alabama River. The host, who is in his sixties, deserves to be called James Allen like his Momma named him—but at reunions, some of us keep forgetting.

Toodie’s place—a house, the stable where dinner was served, and a modest pole barn—occupies the hind part of 3 or 4 acres. The front porch sits right where it ought to sit—on the back, sheltered like a treehouse by oaks and sweetgums. Several yards away, a fenced-off cliff drops down to a meandering little creek.

Toodie designed and built a swinging bridge over the creek down to a level peninsula. A band made a stage of that clearing across the creek. After barbecue and corn on the cob, the music settled into good standard country. And there was no way to put age categories on those who crossed the swinging bridge to dance in the spring-soft dirt.

There was a bathtub of ice and beer, and the bed of a pickup nearly full of ice and soft drinks. The latter ran out first. Honest work trucks parked next to Cadillacs. Calvin Klein’s stood next to Wal-Mart cutoffs; Ph.D’s reminisced with high school dropouts; designer shades reflected John Deere caps. It was Family.

Glenn, one of Toodie’s older brothers commented on how many young folks had come. Hope strong in his voice, he said, “Maybe they’ll like it enough to keep it going.” He has a vested interest in that, for he had Toodie revived this annual barbecue when it started to falter. It had been the LeNoir Reunion for years and year, in honor of the handsome, dark-haired Wilder LeNoir Johnson, who died young of pneumonia, overwork, and having 8 babes in 12 years. She was blood grandmother to most of the older generation present.

A lot of conversation revolved Wilder’s seven children, who survived to adulthood, and the offspring they produced. Six of the sever lived longer than the national average, and none ever forgot the hardships that followed her passing.

Several recalled a couple of somber July Fourths. Like the one when the family gathering took place at the Ivy Creek Methodist Church. They’d come to bury Uncle Whit, who had vowed through a valiant battle with cancer to make it to the reunion. They saw to it that he did.

Some there knew I had attended the funeral service for Aunt Mamie, baby of the original seven. Her death ended the generation. So several time people requested, quietly, “Tell me about Aunt Mamie’s funeral.” I related how she had written the plans for her own services, but told no one, and how those notes fell into the hands of her pastor as he looked over her Bible in search of her favorite passages. And one nephew asked wistfully, “Was she still pretty?” Of course, she was.

There, in the cool shade of that fine day, I concluded that it is of such things that families are made. For just such reasons, Southern families who care about each other make a point to get together each year. It’s not just to eat. It’s to greet those who, though kin, remain good buddies and old friends. It’s to meet the new in-laws. It’s to look earnestly at the new babies, not just to see whose nose they have but to glimpse the future in their eyes. Mostly though, it’s to keep in spiritual touch with those who attained their own earthly immortality by making us part of a family they all believed in.