Family Reunions

Norfolk Southern Railroad Bridge crossing the Delaware River near my Grandmother’s childhood home. The Pennsylvania shore is on right side of photo, the quarry I mention in my memoir is just past the trees at the end of the bridge.

There was an open prompt for the Memoir Group this week. I had been reminiscing about my grandmother’s family reunions when I was growing up and decided on a memoir about them. I believe the last one I attended was almost 50 years ago. Although there were photos of the town on the internet, they are copyrighted so I did not include them in my story.

Family Reunions

I remember when I was a kid how much my grandmother, my Dad’s mother, looked forward to her family reunions.  To accommodate the vacation schedules of most of the attendees, the reunions were held every August at her childhood home in Harmony Township, New Jersey.  Well, they were actually held in an unincorporated part of Harmony Township called Brainards.  A name that, for me anyway, conjured images of gothic horror or of zombies feasting on the craniums of those unsuspecting travelers who happened to stop to fill their gas tank or quench their thirst with a Coke or orange soda from a vending machine.

Preparing for these reunions was quite the task for my grandmother, but it was one she embraced with love and enthusiasm.  Her contribution to the reunion menu was fried chicken – wings, drumsticks and breasts – and she would make enough to feed a small village. But her signature contributions were her pastries – Hungarian Kifle cookies filled with either Lekvar or apricot pastry fillings, or ground walnuts and the light as a feather forgacsfank, fried dough ribbons dusted with powdered sugar.  These were also produced in a quantity that would fill the shelves of a pastry shop.  Her childhood home was perched on a high bluff overlooking the Delaware River.  But as a testament to the power of Mother Nature, it was not high enough to avoid raging floodwaters on several occasions.  So with those experiences ever present in her mind, the preparation for a trip to Brainards also included admonitions to my sister, my brothers and I to not stray too far from the house because there was quicksand that would swallow us up, or a passing train could crush us under its wheels, or the currents and whirlpools in the Delaware River would sweep us away without a sound. When pressed about the location of the quicksand, the replies were vague, it could be in the woods in the middle of a path, or near the railroad tracks, and any number of locations along the shore of the Delaware River.  Apparently quicksand cropped up anywhere she thought kids didn’t belong.  The admonishments would be presented each year.

Traveling to Brainards was interesting in itself.  We would typically make the journey in two cars.  My grandparents, uncle and food in one car.  My parents, brothers – later sisters – me, and more food in the second car.  Our home was in a highly populated, congested area only a stone’s throw from Manhattan.  As we drove West to Brainards, the populated areas would get thinner, we would drive past lakes and forests and finally into rural farm country. The Interstate highway was not completed yet so our backroads threaded through cornfields, dairy and poultry farms.  Sprouting along the roadside in farm country were the famous Burma Shave signs entertaining us with little ditties like:

If you

Don’t know

Whose signs

These are

You couldn’t have 

Driven very far

Burma Shave 


No lady likes

To snuggle 

Or dine

Accompanied by

A porcupine

Burma Shave

Burma Shave signs along highway
Another set of Burma Shave signs. There were approximately 600 different verses.

Soon, our two cars would trundle into town, population about 200.  It still is 200 to this day.  I was always surprised to see the town’s residents out and about.  My grandmother’s harrowing tales about those she personally knew who had run afoul of quicksand, freight trains and whirlpools had given me the impression that Brainards was a ghost town.

Arriving at the reunion site was always chaotic.  The town’s population would significantly increase on reunion day because there would typically be 70 family and extended family members in attendance, so emerging from our cars would result in us facing an onslaught of hugs, kisses, handshakes, back slaps, warnings to kids to watch out for quicksand… you know the drill.  I would initially feel a bit anxious at the start of these reunions.  I was from east New Jersey, my cousins from the western part of the state.  I dressed differently and talked differently, they dressed and talked differently than I did.  However, these differences would soon be overlooked as we immersed ourselves in a day of fun and games.  The activities ranged from horseshoes, quoits, beanbag toss, badminton, baseball, croquet, all of these events highly competitive.  Oh and lawn darts – but watch out for quicksand, freight trains…. If the Delaware River was slow and sluggish and posed no threat of sucking us down in a whirlpool, we went swimming.  Sometimes my Dad’s uncle took us for a ride on the river in his boat.  Playing baseball was fun, my cousin Barry always reminded me of Mickey Mantle and he could hit a ball a country mile.  Occasionally we would hike across the railroad bridge spanning the Delaware to visit a limestone quarry on the Pennsylvania side.  In the crystal clear water you could see huge fish floating just below the surface.  They appeared to be looking back at us.  

The most magnificent sight at these reunions were how the picnic tables bowed from the mounds of food heaped on them.  The quantity and variety was astounding.  Tense moments would ensue as people would compare my grandmother’s kiffles to those of her sister and sister-in-law.  Her sister claimed her forgacsfank were lighter, but her husband declared my grandmother’s were so light, they could float away like bubbles.  One of the cousins would bring kegs of root beer.  I was not a big fan of root beer, but jeez, right out of the keg was like no root beer I ever tasted before.  Stories would be told, jokes would be told, in my early years some I didn’t understand.  We would eat, then play, then eat some more – but be careful not to swim until our food was fully digested.  

As the light of day began to dim, those of us who had a long ride home would soon have to load our overstuffed bodies back into our cars to make the return journey to civilization.  There would be parting hugs, kisses, backslaps and handshakes and declarations of “see you next year”.  In the descending darkness, we would read the Burma Shave signs going in the opposite direction, farmland to forest to houses and businesses and more lights.  We knew we were home when my mother woke us up to get out of the car.  Thinking about these reunions, I wistfully wondered if my grandmother were alive today, and I was to tell her that I was thinking of taking a trip to see how much Brainards has changed through the years, would she tell me to be careful of the quicksand?

Ernie Stricsek

Chatham Memoir Writers Group

July 7, 2022

6 thoughts on “Family Reunions

  1. Grear memories! What was it about quicksand?! It seems everybody of our generation was terrified or warned about it… maybe it was the Tarzan movies? And who can forget the Burma Shave signs? Brilliant marketing… but did anyone actually use the product? Perfect ending – when home from the trip, being awakened in the car to go to bed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great story and memories!Mame’s fried chicken and kifle were better than her sisters’ and sister-in-law’s, too and both Uncle Johns and Uncle Louie made sure all the sisters knew it. 😁 And that always made Mamie very happy.

    Liked by 1 person

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