To la famiglia by Becca Hensley

Our family line derives from “The Trippy Girls,” three sisters born in Geary, Oklahoma, in the early 1900s. We are a small, tight-knit clan gathering every couple years for a three- to four-day reunion. Because we’re spread across the country, location varies so everyone doesn’t have to travel too far each time. Events have evolved in the last few years from the first formal get-together–a Thanksgiving meal hosted by one family in Zwolle, Louisiana, to the most recent and most organized–a long weekend in Northern California wine country.

This reunion was the brainchild of my cousin Claudia DiClemente, who lives in Boyes Hot Springs in the Sonoma Valley and works at the Kenwood Winery. The event succeeded because Claudia worked with what she knew. She knew bed and breakfasts, wine tastings, giant Redwood trees and some of the country’s best Italian food. Her home was too small to serve as a meeting place, so she sought a large B&B to house us; the Beltane Ranch in the hamlet of Glen Ellen was perfect. Its long balconies, porch swings, common rooms and grounds provided perfect spots to mull about with family members. This 1890s style ranch, also a working vineyard, was so entertaining, my three children didn’t notice their room held no television. Instead, they frolicked outside with cousins, playing croquet, basketball, tennis and hiking the ranch’s trails. Perhaps even more important, many adults joined in their games and for a few short days the only thing that mattered was connecting with the family.

The Beltane has only six rooms, so some family groups stayed in other nearby inns, most just a few miles away. We met on a Sunday at four o’clock for a wine and cheese reception in the ranch’s antique-filled common room. Most everyone got lost driving from the airport or San Francisco, so arrivals were staggered, which made greeting time fun and anticipatory. Who would come next? How would they look? How wonderful to see them. We came from Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Louisiana, Washington DC and southern California. Some of us hadn’t seen one another in 20 years, despite regularly scheduled reunions.

Inspired by her connections with area chefs and wineries, Claudia showed us the real Sonoma Valley. Yet she provided free time for leisurely strolls, sightseeing in places like Bodega Bay, or touring any of the multitudinous area wineries. She organized two dinners and one lunch. We were alerted about the cost for each meal per person in advance and asked to send a check before our arrival. This simple, efficient management of a sometimes dicey situation allowed Claudia to enjoy herself without playing bookkeeper and, even more important, eliminated cost misunderstandings before they occurred.

The first night, following the Beltane Ranch reception, we enjoyed an Italian extravaganza at the bistro Caffe Citta. We were loud and happy to see one another and other restaurant clients joined our celebration, toasting us and sharing good wishes.

Lunch the next day was a gourmet box lunch carefully prepared by Kenwood winery chefs and eaten on their private picnic grounds. The beautiful vista, punctuated by neatly rowed grape vines and wildflowers, was almost as delicious as the food. A winery tour followed. Dinner was at Uncle Patty’s in Boyes Hot Springs. The casual atmosphere and good food was conducive to the gathering’s subdued and reflective mood. Since there had been free time between events to visit, hike, shop many local emporiums, lounge on porch swings – and even take a famous mud bath cure – we were tired and content at day’s end.

The last day was “free,” opening up myriad sightseeing possibilities. Some wished to go to the ocean, others to the Redwood forest, and others wanted merely to recline on one of the ranch hammocks. By the third day, we were content to break into various groups and experience northern California. We chose The Swiss Hotel in Sonoma for our last meal together. Even with short notice, this fine eatery managed to set a large u-shaped table and provided us with keepsake menus that read “Trippy Family Reunion.” My mother passed hers around, yearbook style, for everyone to sign.

Though the best parts of the reunion were the intimate moments–the wink, the smile, heads bent to hear intensely engrossing anecdotes–much can be said for the outstanding food, wine and scenery. A reunion in an enchanting place has an almost magical tone. And each one, more fun than the last, threatens never to be outdone. So when my brother meekly suggested Washington DC next, I frowned, thinking, “It will never happen. My brother, plan a reunion? And would the Westerners go that far east?” Before I had the words out of my mouth, 30 of my closest relatives were chanting, loud and raucous as the first night, “DC, DC.” So we had a place and we left, hugging and whispering, “See you in DC.”

About the author
Becca Hensley, lives in Austin, Texas, where she is a full time writer who also paints and teaches writing. Her poetry, essays and fiction have appeared in over 100 magazines, journals and newspapers.