Barbara Gallagher slips out of The Big House's kitchen door shortly after 7 a.m. to gather what she needs for her roasted "seaweed corn." Known as Baa, the senior member of the Biddle, Wesson, and Freeman clan has made her beloved recipe for the past 50 Labor Day picnics.
From the four other homes on this isle, steady streams of cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandmothers emerge. They're soon climbing over rocks to help collect seaweed. "We need you down the line," shouts Baa, urging one lagging family member to join the bucket brigade. Once the last container of seaweed reaches the fire pit, a cheer of "bravo" erupts, and then eight dozen ears of corn are submerged in the ocean until time for roasting.
Clayton Freeman bought this 30-acre island in 1927. Now scattered, family members number 141 and live as far away as Spain. But when Labor Day weekend comes, they all try to get back for what Samantha VanderMeulen describes as "the best of what happened all summer."
The island, which now serves as a backdrop for weddings, birthdays, and this annual reunion, connects the family to its past. Recalling his summers on the original working island farm, Bruce Biddle describes the place as "an element of stability. It's [given us] a real sense of tradition, and it's where each one of us came from." Cousin Wendy Benchley's visits provide constant reminders of her parents, especially her mother, the late Ducky Wesson, who once started an infamous all-island water fight that resulted in hoses being banned from future battles.
Here, grown-ups regularly act like children. A game of Sardines (a version of hide-and-seek) might last until 3 a.m. Legendary hiding places include closet shelves, which can become crammed with adults. The family games tradition peaks during the reunion weekend. This year, as Wendy runs across the lawn, she exclaims, "I can feel like I'm 8 years old again!"
Few want to miss summer's culmination. Matt Thorp and his fiancée traveled from California. "It's my favorite holiday of the year―more than Thanksgiving and Christmas," he says.
Before the whole family arrived, Samantha spent August in The Big House with her husband and three young sons and shared the island with several other branches of the clan. In the evenings, three generations sometimes gathered in the kitchen to prepare dinner "for 15 to 25 people, plus or minus 10," Samantha says. In the mornings, children would go downstairs when they heard Great Aunt Nancy Bates in the kitchen. Between meals, dozens of cousins roamed vast hay fields and wandered the sloping grassy path to the beach.
It's a place where there's "no getting to know you," says one family member, and while a grandchild may be described as "belonging to The Big House," everyone is welcome in any of the five residences. When Susan Dzyacky discovers 5-year-old Jacob Freeman playing by the linden tree, she asks, "Who's watching you?"―to which he replies, "You are."
"Where else can you let your children walk out the door and know there are several adults watching them?" Ducky Freeman asks. "[The island is] a major part of my emotional life because of the connection with extended family."
As they have during so many of these picnics, the adults gather at the edge of the sea and toast the end of summer with their favorite cocktail, French 75 (the family's version combines Champagne, a shot of gin, and a splash of lemon juice). The picnickers also congregate around the fire pit as the corn, with its unusual blend of smoky and salty tastes, is plucked from a bed of steaming seaweed.
Su Eagan remembers as a child sneaking down to the smoldering coals the next morning to make s'mores for breakfast. Once tonight's marshmallows are roasted, the families will perch on the rocks until a chorus of good nights sends a somber line of children to their cottages for one last summer evening on the island.
On Labor Day, the family members pack up and return to the "real world" feeling rejuvenated and reconnected. "The island has cemented us forever and ever," Baa declares.
As the trail of cars crosses the causeway, farewells are softened by the knowledge that the same road will bring this clan back together next summer.
To host your own reunion or private event on the island, e-mail the family at firstname.lastname@example.org.