published Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

Kennedy: The pure power of cousins

Last Sunday, I was at a family gathering in Knoxville when one of my wife's stepbrothers sat down beside me on a couch. He immediately began to make small talk.

"It's good to see all these folks somewhere besides a funeral," he said, gesturing around the room as he nibbled on cheese and crackers.

The occasion was the celebration of new addition to the family, and this was a gathering of the baby's aunts, uncles and cousins. All took turns holding the cuddly little boy as iPhone cameras recorded the tender moments.

Meanwhile, I pulled out my smartphone to text my son's soccer coach, noting "he's at a family reunion today, and won't be attending practice." Typing the words "family reunion" kindled boyhood memories.

I began to think about those honeysuckle-sweet summer days in the 1960s and 1970s, when my family would pile in our Oldsmobile station wagon and head out to the little community of Kettle Mills in rural Middle Tennessee. There, we would visit with my father's cousins and my great-uncle Ralph Kennedy and his sister, Pauline.

Kettle Mills is not far from the Natchez Trace, the 440-mile historical path from Nashville to Natchez, Miss. The farmland around Kettle Mills was rich in phosphate, which was mined in the middle part of the 20th century to make fertilizers for tobacco and other crops.

I remember my dad once asked Uncle Ralph, by then in his 80s, when was the last time he'd seen a doctor.

"Back before the war, I reckon," Ralph said, sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch.

That would have been during his enlistment exam for World War I. Ralph went more than half a century without seeing a doctor and looked no worse for the wear. As far as I could tell, his only physical flaw was that his teeth clicked when he talked.

Ralph and Pauline lived in a big, white farmhouse with a wraparound porch. There was a cistern with a hand crank in the front yard, under the shade of several towering oak trees. A big dinner bell was mounted on a pole out by the barn, and the kids at these reunions would clang it incessantly.

Neither Ralph or Pauline ever married, but the family farm was always the ancestral home for all their many nieces and nephews, a virtual city-state of Middle Tennessee Kennedys.

As a child, I remember feeling connected to a big, multigenerational family at those family reunions. As a boy, I was quiet and reserved, preferring to sit on the floor and listen to the adults talk rather than playing at the creek with the other children.

It seemed to me the grown-ups were always telling stories about dead relatives who had the misfortune of being born before the advent of emergency medicine. Before the day was over, someone would always tick off the family "begats" all the way back to the War Between the States. There was a cherished family history book, published in pamphlet form, that showed how we were all related to Gen. Robert E. Lee, a major source of family pride.

Since my parents died, I haven't seen much of my Middle Tennessee relatives. I have first cousins scattered across the country that I haven't seen in 20 years, which is no one's fault but mine.

I'm glad my wife's family is still diligent about assembling groups of cousins. My two young sons, 12 and 7, have a summer ritual involving cousins on my wife's side of the family. We all gather for a day of barbecue, topped off with ice cream and a spirited game of drop the handkerchief.

I'm always surprised at how insistent the boys are about attending these family events. If you're not careful, modern life has a way of not leaving time for cousins.

And that's a loss, any way you look at it. If you're not careful, you won't see them them again until the next family funeral.

And, sadly, it could be your own.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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