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Another summer has flown by and as I write this, my son is anticipating (note that I said anticipating but not necessarily looking forward to) the start of a new school year that will begin tomorrow with his third grade year. For him, as well as my wife and I, it will be a return to a somewhat more structured life again, with our mornings starting earlier and with schedules having to be adhered to. No more hitting the snooze button for three more nine-minute increments of sleep; one might be all I can get away with.

For him, it has been a summer of baseball games, new glasses, swimming in the pool, a short trip to Savannah and one to Charleston and one weeklong family vacation to Orange Beach that we just returned from yesterday. All in all, it has been a pretty busy summer and even though the hot weather will likely continue for another month and a half, the summer as we define it has come to successful end.

Vacation was a welcome arrival for all of us, especially for me as work has been unusually demanding the last eight months and this particular vacation has been anticipated by all of us because of the amount of time that went into planning it. How many people would actually look forward to spending an entire week as part of a group of 24? How many could SURVIVE a week of vacation with 23 other people? Not only did we survive it, we looked forward to it and much thought and planning goes into the process to make it as enjoyable an experience as possible for everyone…and so it was that on August 11th, we descended on the good residents of Orange Beach, Alabama, whether they were ready for us or not.

Let me back up a bit and explain a few things because the who’s and why’s are important to know. First the who’s. My three first cousins, all sisters, originally from Alabama and now living in California, Florida and Ohio respectively. California has a son and daughter-in-law, plus two daughters for a party of five. Florida has her husband along, adding two more and Ohio has her husband, her husband’s parents, plus their daughter and son-in-law, their son and his girlfriend and their other daughter and her boyfriend for a party of ten. Confused yet?

Now throw in the best friend of the family, really the fourth sister if you will, still living in Alabama and part of the family for as long as anyone can remember, plus her son and his wife for a party of three and then there is my wife, our son, my mother and your humble writer for an additional four, a grand total of 24.

Demographically, the group is very diverse. There are three generations among the total families present. We have a doctor, a dentist, an attorney, an accountant, two social workers, a mechanic, an aeronautical engineer, a book editor, an aspiring writer, an insurance adjuster, a Congressional aid and a number of retirees including a pilot, a nurse, a housewife and a teacher, just to name a few. This means that in addition to planning a major vacation, we can design a plane, fly a plane, fix your car, settle an insurance claim on your car, fix your head, pull a tooth, perform a tracheotomy, write a book, reject the book, cook lasagna, arrange bail and figure up the total costs of all of the above. This is the “who” of the venture.

The why? Every couple of years, this large and geographically far-flung family gets together for a weeklong family reunion of sorts. Marriages and jobs have spread us out all over the country including the states of Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, South Carolina and the District of Columbia so the opportunity to get everyone together is a rare treat, something we all look forward to and for which we plan far in advance to coordinate the schedules of so many busy people. We do it because we have a lot of fun with each other and we enjoy being with each other, catching up on what everyone has been up to, sharing in each other’s achievements and rallying should a crisis arise. We call it Living Large and each time we get together, we try to live up to the expectation such a name implies.

This year was the biggest one we have probably ever had because everyone was there this time, plus we had several new additions to the group, all of whom were subjected to the totally inclusive and immersive experience of a week of card games, talent shows, homemade family meals, beach activities, group photo sessions, day trips to various local venues, shopping, laughing and just being a part of it all. None of them ran away screaming and all professed to having a great time.

Planning began in January with the booking of four three-bedroom condominiums all grouped together on two floors and overlooking the beach and the Gulf of Mexico. We communicate via a group email which is shared with all the email-worthy members of Living Large and use this to plan our activities, go over lessons learned and figure out new and better ways to manage the logistics involved so that when the week itself arrives, everything is planned out and the fun can begin immediately. This year, we added planned meal nights for each condo group to feed the total group and worked out the various necessary activities around those, such as photography, traditional visits to local places like Lambert’s Cafe and who was picking up who at the various airports. Those were the structured activities, leaving the rest of the week open for anything that anyone was up to.

The card game known as Rook is an old family tradition that is a central part of Living Large but other games have been introduced into the mix as well, which is good for those of us like me that can’t (or won’t) learn how to play Rook. Other activities included a boat ride to see dolphins in the wild, a visit to the Naval Aviation Museum in nearby Pensacola, parasailing, ocean kayaking and shopping. Most nights, we gathered in one of the four condominiums to enjoy a made-from-scratch meal, which works really well since there aren’t many restaurants that can or will accommodate a group of our size.

Our first night, we imported dinner all the way from Jackson, Georgia’s own Fresh Air Barbecue and we also ate out on picture night at local restaurant, Hazel’s. We also swapped a supper for a lunch of my mother’s homemade lasagna so that several of us could go eat seafood later that evening. Fried chicken night by the Ohio delegation was a big hit, as was Mexican night by the Californians. The Alabama/South Carolina party brought us a genuine low country shrimp boil and on the last night, we had a progressive pot luck dinner to get rid of all the leftover food. When it was all said and done, we ate well (too well), enjoyed a variety of drinks including homemade mint juleps, played hard and lived large. I think we met all the expectations we could set for ourselves.

Most of all, we spent time together as a family, sometimes in small groups, sometimes the whole group and with an ocean and beach close by, alone time to sit and read was available if anyone needed it. It was what we all needed and we took advantage of every opportunity it afforded. One would think I would enjoy getting to sleep late each morning but in truth, I enjoyed getting up early each day, having a cup of coffee on the balcony and watching the beach come to life as the sun rose. I had lots of opportunities to indulge my photography interest and captured both sunrises and sunsets as well as some interesting storms that happened during the week. I even got to see a rainbow over the ocean, something I’ve never seen before.

All too soon, it was over and the last day arrived. We spent the day together, going out for our traditional meal at Lambert’s Cafe, a southern style eatery where the servers are known to toss hot yeast rolls out to customers waiting to catch them and ended it with our annual talent show, an opportunity for each participant who is willing to show off whatever talent they might choose to display. It is fun, comedic, entertaining and it always brings us closer together.

I know so many people who dread going to family reunions of any kind but I can honestly say that isn’t the case with this extended reunion we take part in every few years. It hasn’t always been so smooth and there were a lot of growing pains along the way and a lot of learning what worked and what didn’t work. The younger adult set are all in their early to late twenties now and all have finished school and begun careers. Where once their needs were the central part of Living Large, they now contribute to the planning and the ideas that are necessary to keep it fresh and new. To any who wanted to try such an endeavor, I would offer just a few tips to help make it work:

1. Plan your meals and know who is doing what. It cuts down on unnecessary trips to the grocery store and it helps to know what night you are responsible for ahead of time.

2. Communicate. Don’t wait until everyone gets there and then try to figure out what to do. Share them ahead of time and the ideas will come. Some will stick and others will be rethought but the process of getting to know what all everyone wants to do is fun and will help you get the most out of your large-sized family vacation.

3. It’s ok to improvise; in fact, if you just have the basics covered, you can improvise around everything else.

4. Have a lot of fun. At the end of the day, it’s the good memories that last a lifetime and make it all worthwhile. Nobody will care in the long run who burned the biscuits.

I’m already looking forward to the next one, whenever that may be and above all, I’m grateful to my fellow Living Largers who made our big vacation so great this year. Now if I can just wrap my head around school starting back tomorrow…..and going back to work….

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