During the Great Eastern Migration of the late 1960s, many families extricated themselves from Brooklyn, journeying into the vast open spaces of Long Island. My family was no different.
While having five or six siblings was the norm back in the 1940s and 1950s, so was getting married and moving out of your parent’s house, although I think there was a law that you weren’t allowed to move more than a few miles away. My father was the youngest of seven children and my mother was the oldest of seven children, so I had plenty of aunts and uncles. Both sets of grandparents resided just three houses away from each other, on Ashford Street in the East New York section of Brooklyn.
The Lombardi’s and the DiSclafani’s have been intertwined ever since. When you add in my parent’s cousins, the Lomino’s and the Liscandrella’s, you get one hell of a big, Italian family.
Every weekend of my young life was spent at a relative’s house, celebrating birthdays, anniversaries or holidays. There was always plenty of food and drinks, arguments and laughter. There were hugs and kisses and lots of cheek pinching.
But while the world in general was changing in the late 1960s, so was my world in our little section of Brooklyn. Many of my parent’s generation were slow to admit the 1950s were over, and the thought of moving away from the love, support and security of their family roots was frightening. Brooklyn was the only home they had ever known. But the green spaces and allure of home ownership in the suburbs beckoned.
By the time 1967 had come and gone, many of my aunts and uncles had joined us out here on Long Island. Although we weren’t separated by physical bridges or state lines, it would never be the same. Your family is still your family, but once geography gets in the way, even a family as close as ours would start to fragment.
That’s when my uncle Charlie organized the first ever Cousins’ Picnic on Labor Day weekend in 1968, at Eisenhower Park. It was a gathering that allowed us to be a family again. We could see all of our cousins in one place. Every aunt and uncle would come, proudly showing off new babies or grandchildren. The Cousins’ Picnic was our version of Facebook.
This was like no picnic you have ever seen, closer to Sunday dinner at grandma’s house. There was sauce and pasta, chicken cutlet parmesan, meatballs and sausage. To this day I’m not sure how our parents were able to prepare sauce and pasta on picnic tables. The banquet required multiple tables joined together, accommodating enough food to rival Thanksgiving.
As kids, we didn’t understand the importance of this yearly ritual. To us, it was just another day to run around with each other like little lunatics in the grass and dirt. As we grew older and began having children of our own, we gained a greater appreciation of the preparation our parents went through every Labor Day weekend.
With our aunts and uncles aging before our eyes, the Cousins’ Picnic became more important from a historical standpoint, as the changing of the guard passed from one generation to another. Our generation certainly didn’t have the time (or patience) to create Sunday dinner from scratch on a picnic table. As the years went on, you saw more traditional picnic fair, like hot dogs and hamburgers. We even catered the picnic a few times, which would have seemed blasphemous in 1975.
Although the attendance at the Cousins’ Picnic has dwindled in recent years, it is still a family tradition. You get to see your extended family wearing shorts and baseball hats, mostly smiling and talking about the old days. We still play bocce ball and spend way too much time hovering over the young’uns. And as you will find in every Italian gathering, there is always plenty of food.
Today, we are older than our parents were when the Picnic started. We graduated from being the kids to being the parents, and now some are the grandparents at the Picnic, all in the blink of an eye.
Next Labor Day weekend, we will head back out there for the 50th anniversary of the picnic that brought our family back together in the late 1960s. Here’s hoping that the next generation will keep it going for another 50 years.