Suzy Fleming Leonard: Annual reunion slows down time, reminds us of what's important

·5 min read
Jo Ellen Palmer, Pat Anderson, Eliza Shaw and Hope Shaw pose with statues of Alabama in downtown Fort Payne, Alabama.
Jo Ellen Palmer, Pat Anderson, Eliza Shaw and Hope Shaw pose with statues of Alabama in downtown Fort Payne, Alabama.

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Family reunions seemed a lot simpler 20 years ago when the first generation handled all the arrangements.

Our parents took turns picking a date and choosing a state park somewhere in the Southeast. No discussion, no debate. My cousins, sisters and our families showed up if we could.

Most of us made the trips to Guntersville, Alabama; Grayton Beach, Florida; Crossville, Tennessee; or Helen, Georgia, for five days of concentrated family time and lots of Southern cooking.

The teachers among us generally attended with no problem. Those of us with less vacation time did our best, but sometimes opted for a "real" trip rather than one spent with family. Family, we figured, would always be there. Weeks off were precious.

If only we'd known.

Yes, time is precious, but time with family is fleeting and irreplaceable.

We've lost some of the first generation, and some are too frail to travel far.

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The second has taken on reunion-planning responsibilities. But unlike our parents, who always had the final word, we feel compelled compromise, consulting one another to plan around work schedules and travel distances.

We have a new respect for the coordination involved in finding a place within driving distance of most, with cabins to house at least eight families and with stuff to do nearby. This year's plans were nearly blown away by Hurricane Ida, which severely damaged much of Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville, Louisiana.

Quick phone calls by Cousin Joseph landed us at DeSoto State Park in Fort Payne, Alabama.

From the distance of a couple of weeks and 500 miles, it's hard to remember exactly what we did while in the north Alabama foothills of the Appalachians. But I know it was magic.

Suzy and Steve Leonard pose for a photo in front of the waterfall before hiking to the bottom of Little River Canyon in Alabama.
Suzy and Steve Leonard pose for a photo in front of the waterfall before hiking to the bottom of Little River Canyon in Alabama.

We sought out waterfalls and hiked to the bottom of Little River Canyon, trying not to laugh openly at strangers making the rocky trek in flipflops.

We watched fireflies light up the field between our cabins, and spotted a couple of deer and a small fox spying on us.

I gave third-gen Cousin Callan a perm, turning his straight, silky locks into a mass of blond ringlets, a time hop to high school when curly mullets and the aroma of perm solution permeated my life.

We retold stories from the last time we'd convened at DeSoto State Park. That time, we were the goofy tourists struggling down the steep stairs to the Little River Canyon swimming hole in flipflops and Crocs.

That's also the time a heated argument broke out over whether German cockroaches can fly. I'm going with Cousin Kelly, who has a Ph.D. in entomology. She assured us they don't, but Asian cockroaches, which look similar, do.

Game nights got rowdy, with the occasional inappropriate guess Telestrations, especially for a bunch of Baptists.

We gathered for dinner each night, feasting on Aunt Linda's strawberry preserves and Aunt Audrey's hash brown casserole. Cousin Joseph revealed the secret ingredient to his potato salad — Wickle Pickle Relish — and we finally, finally got Aunt Audrey to explain why none of us can make hash browns that taste as good as hers.

Her secret isn't love, though she doubles the amount of that in everything she cooks. Where her recipe calls for "yellow cheese," we've all gone with cheddar or Monterey Jack. No, she said. Use Velveeta.

We spent an afternoon in downtown Fort Payne and posed with statues of the band Alabama, who hail from that part of the state. As I looked up at the larger-than-life likenesses of the musicians who performed at the first concert I ever saw, another wave of nostalgia washed over me.

Reunions are like that. They bend time, swirling past and present together. We're simultaneously children and carefree young adults and middle-agers. We expect to see our mamas and our daddies come through the door, even though they've been gone for years.

We get to know one another all over again, at all stages of life. We watch as the third generation grows up, gets married and introduces us to the fourth.

And we remember how much we love each other, how precious and fleeting this time is. We squeeze every second out of it and hold onto it until we can do it again next year.

Because we will. Now we know what's important.

Aunt Audrey's Hash Brown Casserole

Makes 10 servings

2 cups shredded yellow cheese (Velveeta)

1 cup cream of chicken soup

1 cup sour cream

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon butter, melted, divided

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

32-ounce bag frozen loose-pack hashbrowns, thawed

1 cup crushed corn flakes

1 tablespoon butter, melted

Position a rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine cheese, soup, sour cream, onion, 1/4 cup butter, salt and pepper. Mix well.

Fold in hash browns. Pour mixture into a greased 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

Toss together corn flake crumbs and 1 tablespoon butter. Sprinkle over casserole.

Bake for 1 hour or until casserole is golden brown and the potatoes are tender.

Suzy Fleming Leonard is a features journalist with more than three decades of experience. Reach her at sleonard@floridatoday.com. Find on Facebook: @SuzyFlemingLeonard or on Instagram: @SuzyLeonard

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This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Reunion memories are great, and so is this Hash Brown Casserole recipe