Every spring the snows melt on the mountains east of Huntsville, Utah; the waters flow down Geertson, Maple Canyon, and The Cliffs; Middle Fork and South Fork surge through the quiet valley to meet at last in Pine View Lake. And the James Gunn McKay family beings its annual pilgrimage home to Huntsville, bringing husbands, wives, children, dogs, cats, fish, and even horses. This tumultuously joyous gathering is a tradition that began sorrowfully in 1942 when eight children gathered around their mother, Bessie McKay, on the bleak September afternoon that their father, James Gunn McKay, died.
That gathering was a bond that would reach across the miles and, each summer, draw them home. As their own children came into the world and the numbers and the noise increased, the fun and frequency of visits did not diminish.
Last summer was no different except that more came to stay for a longer period of time. And there was no place to house them.
The 47 cousins were concerned when the family home built over a hundred years ago by great-grandfather Angus McKay was rented. In summers past, Uncle Gunn and Aunt Donna had opened the doors of that great sandstone structure to welcome them all home to stay for a meal or a month. Then Uncle Gunn and his family went off to Washington, D.C., and left some other folks to make sure pipes didn’t freeze in winter.
But when spring came, a flood of McKays came, too—aunts, uncles, Grandma Bessie, and cousins by the dozens.
“We’ll sleep in the barn,” a girl exclaimed.
“Let’s pitch tents in the pasture,” cried a toddler.
“We’ll live up at The Cliffs,” the young men shouted.
As it happened, the family was able to rent the Valley House, a two-story, 23-room mansion built in 1872 by cattleman L. M. Nelson, who later became town mayor. Its brick and mortar were pure Huntsville history. But its ten-foot ceilings, spacious kitchen, dining hall, and bedrooms seemed designed for the mammoth McKay homecoming of 1974.
What happens when some 60 relatives of all ages mingle for a season as one large family? Perhaps a teenaged boy answered that question best. As fall approached he mused one evening with his parents: “Isn’t it amazing how plain-looking Kathy was when she got here last June and how different she looks now? She’s sure grown beautiful this summer.”
Everyone had grown that summer. Some, more beautiful; some, more aware of beauty; some stronger, kinder, more patient, more tolerant. And there were other ways in which to grow. The summer world was huge with opportunity.
For one thing, every young boy big enough to roll a hay bale had a chance to work. Uncle Jerold saw to that. Teenagers could grab a bale and throw it up four tiers—five if girls were watching. During the haying season the boys were up at six and in the field. They’d work all day, go for a swim, and after suppertime would drag themselves upstairs to bed and drop like stones to sleep.
For several summers Uncle Jerold also taught them to paint. And though they didn’t like that work as well as hauling hay, they painted between the first and second crops and at other times to fill an idle hour.
The girls could dust an 80-year-old lamp or chest of drawers or clear the dishes from the five large tables where the family ate: one in the dining hall, two in the kitchen, one on the porch, and one outside beneath the apple tree. Or they could scrub the back porch stove and grill that would fry 50 pancakes at a time. Baking, too, was fun when hungry boys would praise their pies and cakes and cookies. And they were always welcome in the fields to help to roll or lift a bale.
No one ever asked, “What shall we do?” Always there was something. Although no one ever put a pencil to the summer’s plan or said, “Now you do this” and “I’ll do that,” somehow each one learned to labor. All were fed and clothed and cared for. Though a child might be misplaced for a moment, not one was lost, though once a leg was broken.
Living in such a united disorder is a singular experience for aunts and uncles as well as for cousins. Aunt Shirley, who grew up as an only child, was heard to say, “When you marry a McKay, you become a companion to a family—even more than that, you become one with a village, a valley, and woe be unto you if you cannot ride a horse.”
There were short rides around the town and day-long rides. There were rides on which every child begged to go. And rides from which no adult (however timid) could escape. The horseback rides were family affairs. They were times to eat ash-speckled bacon, eggs, and pancakes that never could be swallowed in a kitchen. They were times to stand next to the stars and share your testimony around a glowing fire. They were times to find where mountain springs begin, to watch the beaver busy at his dam, to listen to the call of birds, to find a family of deer and trail them home. They were times to learn the lore of land and lake and mountain community, to learn so much detail from Uncles Gunn, Quinn, Monroe, and Barrie that Ryan finally asked one day, “Hey, are we passing off our Environmental Science merit badge?” And sure enough, they were.
And there were other merit badges that were earned, some easily: fishing, swimming, painting, horsemanship—skills that were a living part of life. Others required greater study: safety, first aid, and citizenship in the community, nation, and world. But there were aunts and uncles who gave help in their special areas, and in all, the boys earned 40 badges. Five are now Eagle Scouts, and others are working toward that goal. “Scouting’s funner when we do it all together,” Darren said.
Everything was “funner” than before—even grammar. The cousins could thank Aunt Williamena for seeing to the planting and raising of the garden, Aunt Elizabeth for taking an extra share of the cooking responsibilities, Aunt Mary for overseeing the huge baskets of daily washing, and Aunt Shirley for superintending the house cleaning—could thank them each for making these things “funner than before.” And like it or not, they could thank Aunt Elaine for suggesting that summer was a splendid time for some special scholarly pursuit such as language arts.
The Valley School principal happily added a course of grammar and composition to his summer school curriculum, and twice a week the Valley House people filled up the classroom. The youngest student was in second grade, the oldest studying for his doctorate. So it was not unusual for a young man, while tossing up a bale of hay, to belt out 30 prepositions and for some fellow on the stack to answer him with eight “be” verbs, 14 “related verbs,” and two dozen “helpers.”
It would be less than honest to say there were no problems at the Valley House. There were some broken rules. “No dogs in the house,” for instance, was a definite rule. But Uncle Monroe’s shaggy dog, Oohginny, didn’t know that. And she was sometimes found in the large hall downstairs. Little wonder that Uncle Quinn’s dachshund, neat Pippet, started slipping in. This put ideas into the Spitz-like head of Uncle Barrie’s happy mongrel, Snowball, which was bad enough, but then Uncle Jerold’s hunting hounds, huge Red and Blaze, tried easing into the back porch. And stepping over Ridgebacks was the limit of everyone’s endurance.
Then suddenly the last of August came—more quickly than in other years—and the cousins began to savor dwindling days and to talk of summer memories as though they were years old: we never could forget the Fourth of July rodeo when Scott and Matthew hung on bucking broncs and Uncle Barrie didn’t know whether to snap pictures of the cowboys or their mothers. And didn’t we all smile when little Rebecca in sacrament meeting looked over one long row of handsome deacons—all relatives—and whispered loud enough for folks to hear, “I wish we could grow up and marry our cousins”? And wasn’t it wonderful that this summer Mavis married Chris … and we could all be part of it and know that someday we, too, would marry someone in the temple of the Lord … ? And we’ll remember always the view from the top of Geertson, the swimming parties at the lake, the hayrides when we hitched up Ramatu and Needles to the old wagon that once belonged to grandfather, the songfests when everybody played at the piano just for fun and somehow made the years of practice really worth the effort, the water fights in the town ditch where everyone won—soaking wet … and the quiet moments when we just sat and talked on the front lawn in the cool of the evening, talked of anything and everything—horses or heartaches, girls or guys or gospel … and the frightening time when Grandma became so frail and sick and we took turns sitting by her bedside in the night and reading to her in the day until little by little she grew well enough to make us laugh again with her quick wit and funny memories of our parents. And yes, we listened through the summer to our parents as they told a hundred stories we’d heard a hundred times—legendary tales we’ll tell our children. And maybe years from now we will recall to one another the time we cut and hauled the grass in the great yard of the David O. McKay home … and how someone said, “A prophet walked here once. And years ago he rode his horse to carry mail to LaPlatte, now a ghost town deep in the hills where we, too, rode our horses this summer.” … and, oh, we will remember all the family nights with Uncle Gunn taking charge and calling on each one. …
And finally, there was the last Sunday that everyone could be together for a sacrament meeting. Family members, young and old, participated. And Aunt Mary told a hushed audience, “Family night isn’t important,” paused, then said simply: “Family is! Every second, every minute, every hour—the day in and day out of the family is important. And so to our family we each one should give not merely family night but rather all the strength and heart and soul of our lives. …”
And besides, when everyone visits at once, “It’s funner!”