A couple of girls in my high school class were arguing one day about
who is included in one's immediate family. One insisted on only
including your parents and siblings. The other just laughed. No,
she said, your immediate family includes your grandparents, aunts,
uncles, and all your cousins, and everyone comes to every family
My mother-in-law, Natalie, was even more inclusive. Family gatherings included all of the above plus a few neighbors, several of her teacher friends, friends of her children, and maybe a family or two from the school where she taught.
I think I fell in love with my in-laws as quickly as I fell in love with my husband. Chris was smart. He took me to meet his family very soon after we met. It was a Saturday or Sunday evening and everyone had come home for dinner. I learned, over the next few months, Chris and his 5 siblings were free to invite friends for dinner and they frequently did.
Natalie loved to cook. She had been a nutritionist in the army during WWII, stationed in England. She was used to cooking for hungry crowds. This was good, because during the next year, three of her children married, including Chris and I. As our families grew, the family gatherings grew, too. Before long, all of us were married and bringing our children along. You'd think with 6 children and their spouses and 18 grandchildren, this would be enough immediate family for anyone, but Natalie found people endlessly interesting and there would often be someone new to meet, in addition to a few old friends, colleagues, and neighbors. If anything, the gatherings became larger and included more people as the years went by.
Natalie passed away in November of 2006, five years after her husband, Paul. Chris and I visited her the day before she had the seizure from which she never awoke. She dozed on and off, but whenever she was awake, she asked about everyone in our family. Just before we left, she woke up to say goodbye. Looking up at us with bright eyes and an even brighter smile, she said, “It's been fun, hasn't it!” On the way home, Chris told me he felt she was speaking more of her life than of the moment. It wasn't until later, we learned these had been her last words.
We still get together, but not as much. Natalie was the matriarch and truly, I believe people came together to be with her. She left us with memories of warm meals, large family gatherings which never felt crowded, and a gentle sense of humor which occasionally included novelty eyeglasses (with eyeballs on springs) and an umbrella hat.
She also left her recipes, organized in cardboard boxes, some typed, some handwritten, and some with the unmistakable purplish blue print of the school mimeograph machine. On the recipes, she kept a diary of sorts; notes on doubling the recipes and how much was left over, who came to each gathering, and how they set up the tables and chairs. Our son, John, took some of these recipes and created a lovely recipe book, which is available online. Take a look! He included copies of some of the original recipes, notes and all:
Now, our own family is growing. Our third grandchild is due to arrive any day now. Just having our kids and grandkids together makes for a full house. Lately, however, both Chris and I have been missing the large Reinhart family gatherings and this year, we invited everyone we could think of to join us for Easter. It was wonderful!
We plan to continue this tradition, though I would never try to take Natalie's place. That would be silly. For one thing, those would be big googly-eyed glasses to fill.