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The family way

A reunion of Cheaneys has no plot but weaves into the master plot

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Shortly after World War II, a discharged soldier stopped by a small town in the Missouri Ozarks to visit his mother. Strolling into the county courthouse to ­procure a fishing license, he noticed a pretty girl in the assessor’s office. One thing led to another: a proposal, a wedding, a honeymoon in New York City—and ­approximately nine months later, a firstborn son.

Fifty-one-plus years ago, I married that son and acquired another family. The Cheaneys were numerically large, though not out of place in a region of traditional Catholics. There were seven kids, stair-stepping down from my husband, just turned 23, to his 12-year-old brother. Six were boys, signifying multiples of Cheaneys in the future.

The future is here, and our future selves are back from a family reunion to report. Dad and Mom passed away decades ago, but they left behind 22 grandchildren and (at last count) 50 great-grandchildren. Boys outnumbered girls almost 2-to-1 in the second generation, but by the third the girls have caught up and passed them. Most of the family remained within a 200-mile radius of the small town where it all started, making them easy to round up on the first weekend of every August.

Of the seven original siblings, the first four married in the 1970s and produced offspring. (The younger three also produced offspring but either didn’t stay married or didn’t bother at all.) Of our generation, only one graduated from college and the others found what jobs they could. We drove old cars and shopped at thrift stores and struggled (some of us) with difficult partners—but created a solid platform to launch our Gen-X kids. Most of those earned college degrees, married well, and followed careers: IT specialist, insurance adjuster, surveyor, electrician, nurse, farmer, social worker, accountant, teacher, rental manager, two artists, three full-time moms. We’ve seen our share of funerals: One of my brothers-in-law died suddenly at age 36; two more died slowly at 54. One of my nephews came to an early end in an auto accident; another from a drug overdose.

Though larger in number and more cohesive than most, we’re a normal family with a crowded calendar of wedding anniversaries and birthdays. One sister-in-law faithfully sends cards at these occasions, as my mother-in-law used to. Otherwise, we don’t communicate much during the year, which makes the August reunion a how’s-retirement-and-what-are-the-grandkids-doing confab. Memories replay like scratchy home movies: Mom’s diatribes about county politics, the legendary stunts two of my brothers-in-law got up to, the fishing mishaps of my nieces and nephews down at the creek.

The stories have no plot but weave into the master plot begun in Genesis with “These are the generations” of Adam, Noah, Shem, Isaac. Years ago, while gathering the grandkids for a group picture, my father-in-law quipped, “What hath God wrought?” He took a risk, marrying that girl in the courthouse, and the marriage had its difficulties. But God wrought a harvest of immortal souls from it.

On our way home from the reunion we stopped at a convenience store. The clerk was a friendly young man with stained teeth (Tobacco? Meth?). After preliminary chitchat, he abruptly said, “I need some parenting advice.” He had just learned that his girlfriend was pregnant—his first, her third—and admitted to being both excited and scared. The advice I gave wasn’t bad: to remember that each difficult stage doesn’t last and that each child comes with challenges and blessings. I should have said the greatest gift a father can give his children is to ­commit to their mother. That’s startling enough, it might have made him think.

According to numerous recent surveys, most of his Gen Z contemporaries don’t consider the risk of marriage worth taking. Surveys also report an increase of loneliness among all ages. Not a coincidence, I expect. God sets the lonely in families, as Psalm 68 says, but it must be tougher to set those who don’t understand what family is.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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