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It's chaos, but happy chaos

Family comes together at Watch Hill retreat, year after year

Published 06/14/2011 12:00 AM

Too often extended family togetherness seems to take a backseat to life. Our family was typical in that fashion, seeing distant relatives only at the occasional wedding and funeral. The comment at these events was always the same, "We should get together!" We all thought it, but no one actually did anything about it.

At some point my Aunt Ann decided it was time for a reunion. She secured the location: a gigantic sprawling house located near the beach at Watch Hill. The rooms were endless, one after the other. Three stone fireplaces jutted through the 12-foot ornate ceilings and three floors. It had back, side and front porches with a huge lawn. Built in the early 1900's, it was created in the familiar Watch Hill architectural style, with stone work and weathered shingles interspersed with large windows to catch the sea breeze. And it's private; only a meandering soul could find it in the many dips and valleys in the Westerly terrain, down quiet shady side streets.

That first year was 15 years ago, and we have returned like lemmings to the sea every year since. Originally, we arrived on Friday night of Labor Day Weekend, leaving on Monday. That changed to arrival on Thursday, which morphed into an entire week.

Our days and nights at Watch Hill have been perfected by time. Each family buys a bounty of food, and proclaims a night to make a meal for 40. Relatives flock from across the country, and the week is secured a year in advance. It works because we make it work: The reunion is a definite on the calendar of all, and so it happens and is eagerly anticipated all year. Cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents arrive from across the country: Washington, California, Texas, Florida, Virginia, New York, Maine and New Hampshire. And there's a Rhode Island contingent as well.

The emotional benefits of these days at Watch Hill are priceless. Stories are told and passed down to the next generation. There is a sense of familial belonging, that we've all come from the same place and continue to be connected. The six-year-olds who were racing up and down the corridors of the house that first year have just graduated from college. They've been replaced by the children of the twenty-somethings from that initial year. Each year holds special memories. My son Peter took his first steps at Watch Hill, to a crowd of cheering relatives. There was one year where it rained all four days, and I was secretly grateful to relax with my four- and two-year-old, while pregnant with our third child. The multitude of relatives eager to partake in the care-giving of them that week eased my mind.

The days are filled with trips to the beach, walks to town and bike rides to Weekapaug. There's a visit to the Olympia Tea Room, ice cream ordered from bustling take-out windows and rides on the carousel for the little ones. There's the enjoyment of leisurely perusing the dainty shops for tidbits and T-shirts. For the kids, the candy store is pure bliss, as they put their sugary concoctions in little bags to be spread out and traded with cousins back at the house.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of our week involves the less flashy features of Watch Hill. It's getting up in the early morning light to walk by the Ocean House, where you can glimpse the sandy arm of Napatree jutting out into the sea. There's meandering to the lighthouse where the calm water shines like glass or walking down narrow shadowy lanes where zinnias provide a splash of color next to white picket fences and the sultry scent of rosa rogasa drifts by. It's the open windows where the crashing of waves can be clearly heard each night, cracking like thunder at high tide.

The location is the icing on the cake, appreciated in its beauty, but secondary for the real reason we are there, which is for family. (I think even if we were all stuck in a barn somewhere in a field, we would still have fun.) Nights are the best, when dinner is a big raucous affair of shouts and laughter. After cleanup, people gravitate to the front porch, watching the kids ride bikes in the driveway. Jonathan plays his bagpipes as the children scamper. Ryan joins in with his violin, playing an Irish jig as the sun sets behind the trees. As afternoon descends into twilight, the kids migrate to the lawn and woods to play sardines, capture the flag and manhunt. We can hear their shrieks of laughter carrying on the breeze, their voices calling out to each other. They're out late and are called in way past bedtime, their faces dirty, sweaty and sunburned, exhausted but smiling from ear to ear.

Other nights we set up board games or loud crazy games of spoons, Pit and charades. There's plenty of bedrooms to spare, but all the younger boys camp out in one room, girls in another, a whole week of having sleepovers with their cousins. What's better than that?

Our days and nights follow the rhythm of time and tide, and pass by much too quickly. As all things do, it comes to an end. The packup is a silently sad time, and the goodbyes in the driveway always involve hugs and tears. The conclusion of our time together signals not only the end to our vacation, but the end to summer as well. A few stray red leaves have already fallen in the driveway when we leave, heralding in a new season. Soon schedules and school will fall into the pattern of our life and our time together will be relegated to the past. Pictures hold the details in place, camcorders record the nuances of the week, and our memories are held in our hearts the whole year through.

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