A long, narrow causeway connects an extended family to a pastoral Connecticut wonderland.

By Kathy Calnen
January 08, 2007
Kindra Clineff

Barbara Gallagher slips out of The Big House's kitchen doorshortly 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 past50 Labor Day picnics.

From the four other homes on this isle, steady streams ofcousins, aunts, uncles, and grandmothers emerge. They're soonclimbing over rocks to help collect seaweed. "We need you down theline," shouts Baa, urging one lagging family member to join thebucket brigade. Once the last container of seaweed reaches the firepit, a cheer of "bravo" erupts, and then eight dozen ears of cornare submerged in the ocean until time for roasting.

Clayton Freeman bought this 30-acre island in 1927. Nowscattered, family members number 141 and live as far away as Spain.But when Labor Day weekend comes, they all try to get back for whatSamantha VanderMeulen describes as "the best of what happened allsummer."

The island, which now serves as a backdrop for weddings,birthdays, and this annual reunion, connects the family to itspast. 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 uscame from." Cousin Wendy Benchley's visits provide constantreminders of her parents, especially her mother, the late DuckyWesson, who once started an infamous all-island water fight thatresulted 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. Legendaryhiding places include closet shelves, which can become crammed withadults. The family games tradition peaks during the reunionweekend. This year, as Wendy runs across the lawn, she exclaims, "Ican feel like I'm 8 years old again!"

Few want to miss summer's culmination. Matt Thorp and hisfiancée traveled from California. "It's my favorite holiday ofthe year―more than Thanksgiving and Christmas," he says.

Before the whole family arrived, Samantha spent August in TheBig House with her husband and three young sons and shared theisland with several other branches of the clan. In the evenings,three generations sometimes gathered in the kitchen to preparedinner "for 15 to 25 people, plus or minus 10," Samantha says. Inthe mornings, children would go downstairs when they heard GreatAunt Nancy Bates in the kitchen. Between meals, dozens of cousinsroamed vast hay fields and wandered the sloping grassy path to thebeach.

It's a place where there's "no getting to know you," says onefamily member, and while a grandchild may be described as"belonging to The Big House," everyone is welcome in any of thefive residences. When Susan Dzyacky discovers 5-year-old JacobFreeman playing by the linden tree, she asks, "Who's watchingyou?"―to which he replies, "You are."

"Where else can you let your children walk out the door and knowthere are several adults watching them?" Ducky Freeman asks. "[Theisland is] a major part of my emotional life because of theconnection with extended family."

As they have during so many of these picnics, the adults gatherat the edge of the sea and toast the end of summer with theirfavorite cocktail, French 75 (the family's version combinesChampagne, a shot of gin, and a splash of lemon juice). Thepicnickers also congregate around the fire pit as the corn, withits unusual blend of smoky and salty tastes, is plucked from a bedof steaming seaweed.

Su Eagan remembers as a child sneaking down to the smolderingcoals the next morning to make s'mores for breakfast. Oncetonight's marshmallows are roasted, the families will perch on therocks until a chorus of good nights sends a somber line of childrento their cottages for one last summer evening on the island.

On Labor Day, the family members pack up and return to the "realworld" feeling rejuvenated and reconnected. "The island hascemented us forever and ever," Baa declares.

As the trail of cars crosses the causeway, farewells aresoftened by the knowledge that the same road will bring this clanback together next summer.

To host your own reunion or privateevent on the island, e-mail the family atislandfarm@comcast.net.