My Dad's folks and their families were from a very small town in rural Illinois. They grew up together. Several siblings from one family married siblings from the other family. All of the family members in each family was familiar with the family lives of all the other family members in either family. Everyone in the town, and the county for that matter, knew everyone else and everyone else's business. That's just the way it was.
The town was an interesting place for us to visit as kids. We had never been anywhere where everyone still went into town on Saturday night and walked up and down the sidewalks just to see who was out and about and who was doing what to whom. It was a place out of an old movie - almost. Except, in a movie, people wouldn't have known my dad's family and its lineage on both sides for several generations. How do I know about all of this you ask. Quite simple. My Mom and Dad took us on an adventurous trips to the joint family reunion several summers in a row back in the day. His dad's family, his mom's family, his sister-in-law's family and the family of my dad's sister's first husband all got together for a huge family reunion every summer. It lasted for days and always took place at someone's farm home or on a large farm property under lots of old shade trees. It was the best time ever to learn about all kinds of family secrets and skeletons in the closet (not just talking secrets here - but a real skeleton!)
The first family reunion I remember us going to was such a delightful event. Sunshine, a small stream to go polliwog seining in, caves to explore, family horses to ride and fall off of, more fried chicken, mashed potatoes, real gravy, beaten biscuits, pies and cakes, lemonade and homemade pickles than you would think possible to see covering a tabletop anywhere. And the things you could hear from people's minds without even trying to listen were amazing! Who knew that my dad was considered an "ornery little guy with big ears" by his aunties growing up. I didn't until the thoughts from one of his mom's sister's mind came screaming out of her head. "My goodness! For such an ornery little guy with big ears, he sure grew up to be a good looking man!" What was amusing to me was that her mouth was saying, "G, it's sure nice of you and your family to come to the reunion this year... glad to have you." Now of course, by that time, I had learned not to tell anyone that I was hearing things that weren't being said aloud. That wouldn't have been acceptable, let alone prudent on my part. Well, let's say, I didn't tell my folks I was hearing things that weren't being said aloud. I did, however, share them with Dad's Cousin's Kids when we were all crawling into cave entrances we weren't supposed to be near upon penalty of death. Their response was to tell me that sometimes they could do things like that too. Not believing them, I asked in my most serious tone, "Are you kidding me, or do you mean it?" Blessings and surprises, they really meant it! Other kids like me - WOW! So, for a few hours the eight of us sat in the mouth of one of the caves talking about how and when we learned we could talk with our minds to the dearly departed and hear things people were thinking when they were really thinking hard, and about how much no one believed us. And, best part, we practiced talking in our minds. That was really the neatest part! No words aloud, just minds chatting back and forth as we were able.
Suddenly, one of Cousin's Kids jumped up and said, "We gotta get back on the horses and get to riding. They're lookin' for us and if they find us here, my ma will smack my ass!" The rest of us did as we were told, because after all, Cousin's Oldest said so. Then it dawned on me to ask how he knew they were looking for us. His reply was that he had heard his dad's mind yelling "If he's in that cave again, I'll skin him! And, if he's taken the city kids in there, their parents will skin him worse!" Well, wish I could say we escaped unscathed by parental wrath for being gone for hours with the horses and not telling anyone where we were riding off to, let alone "not coming back in good time so the other kids could have fun riding before it got dark." Oops! But, our backsides being sore not withstanding, it was interesting to learn that Dad's mom came from a long line of people with "the gift" because Grandma's family was part Indian not too far back in the line. (I'm not politically correct here because this was the family explanation for "the gift" and I remember it this way.) No one ever had mentioned "the gift" to the 3 of us in my family. No one. So, I asked my cousins, Dad's oldest brother's kids, if they had ever hear about such a "gift". Nope, not them either. Nor my Aunt D's kids, nor my Uncle J's kids. So, we all decided to set out to learn more from the Dad's Cousin's Kids.
Come to find out, there was a lot about things spooky and weird our folks didn't tell us about, in addition to not telling us about "the gift." According to Cousin's Kids, all of the kids in the extended family were able to sense "them" and hear "them" and sometimes even see "them." Most of the time though, it was kept pretty much a secret because the preachers at the Church of Christ where the families attended services deemed those things "wicked" and "wrong." And, it didn't seem to help either, that all of the kids at one time or another in each of the families were given to talking in tongues and other odd types of things (spontaneous trances, for one) that weren't really looked well upon. Coming from the family situation I did, that explanation made sense - except the part about the preachers, but, then again, I never talked to our minister about my abilities, so, to me they were probably right about how the religious bosses saw things.
It seems Dad's family lived in a haunted tenant house for a time, till it nearly drove my Grandpa nuts, and they all moved out without ever looking back. This too, was something that had never been shared with Sister, Brother or myself. Curious for more information than Cousin's Kids had, we and our cousins started asking Grandma's sisters about the house that was haunted. Aunt R relayed the story this way: The family was living in a tenant house on a farm when the kids were growing up. The boys shared a room, Aunt D had a room to herself, Grandpa and Grandma had their room and there was a room at the end of the hallway that no one used. Period. No one used it. Aunt R explained that the room was always freezing cold, even in the heat of August. There were swarms of big black flies that would buzz around the room and drop dead. And, worst of all, some nights, there were all kinds of loud bangs, knocks, noises and shouts coming from that room. Since this was back during the Depression she told us, my grandparents weren't being fussy about where they lived as long as they had a roof over their heads and a place to raise their kids. Until... the night the door to that room slammed open and the noises and bangs and knocks manifested themselves in the hallway outside my grandparent's room. As she described it, Grandpa got up, yelling at the boys to behave and go back to bed. As he stepped out of his bedroom, he noticed the boys were cowering in the doorway to Aunt D's room staring up the hallway toward him and the swirling mass in front of him. The mass swarmed over Grandpa and knocked him off his feet then returned to the room and the door slammed shut behind it. That rather shook up the whole family. And it continued to do so for a number of nights thereafter. So, Grandpa being the tall, strong, stubborn man he was marched into the hardware store bought large spike-like nails with the milk money and proceeded to nail the door to that room closed. It didn't stay closed that night, or any night thereafter despite Grandpa's best efforts to keep the door closed. Aunt R told the enthralled group of cousins around her knees that this went on for several more nights until the night the whole thing came to a gigantic conclusion. There was apparently the loudest banging, rattling, cursing, screaming and carrying on coming from the room that had been experienced by Dad's family. Then, the spikes came flying one by one out of the 2x4s that were nailed in an "x" across the door frame. The boards quickly followed and were shoved into the plaster lathe walls the opposite end of the hallway with such force that the plaster broke loose from between the lathes. The cold that engulfed the entire upstairs of the house was filled with the stench of death itself. Grandma told Aunt R that the mass was almost as strong as a tornado as it roamed up and down the hallway to accompanying bangs, noises and knocking. As far as Grandpa was concerned, that was the absolute last straw. He bellowed at the family to gather their stuff, all of their stuff, and to get outside immediately. They weren't going to be staying there any more. And they didn't. They left that night and never went back again. Period.
This was such "cool news" that we had to ask Grandma about it. She and Aunt R had a few brief words and then Grandma told us that yes, this was indeed a true story. And, while she was at it, she confirmed that "the gift" was something that seemed to travel around in her family tree. She didn't see the problem with it, but, since Grandpa was a Deacon in the Church of Christ, it would be better not to say to much about being curious about such things at the reunion "because you never knew who would be listening in and wanting to make trouble." Then, my Cousin D leaned over and asked me if I had heard what Grandma didn't say. For once, I didn't. Cousin D told me that she had heard Grandma's mind say " 'The gift' isn't something to be afraid of. My family has used it for years with no problem. It was part of their ceremonies and such. It keeps you connected to the Earth and to the Spirits around us!" WOW! Grandma had a big secret. Then she told us that Cousin D's dad, my dad, Uncle J and Aunt D had all shown signs of having "the gift" when they were younger, but, because of Grandpa's beliefs, they didn't use them and that we shouldn't ask them about that sort of thing, not matter how nosey we watned to be. And, then we had to promise we wouldn't talk about those sorts of things in front of Grandpa and we did.
The other really cool thing we learned at the family reunion that sometimes when someone in the family tells you there are skeletons in the closet, there really are skeletons in the closet! Hard to believe I know, but, t'is true. One of Cousin's Kids let it slip that during the story about the haunted house that the house he lived in had skeletons in the closet. Real ones. And, that sometimes they, the skeletons, talked to them. Now, that sure sounded far fetched to us, but, hey, we were talking about a haunted house, so, why not!
The story went that his folks moved into the house to take care of it for an older farmer who couldn't live by himself any more and needed someone to take care of him, the house, and the farm. So, in the whole family moved. The only stipulation was that the family was not to use the closet under the front stairs for any reason. Seemed a simple enough request, so they agreed to it. Then, "the gift" kicked in one day, and Aunt W heard voices coming from the front entryway. She went out to see who was there and found no one. Not one living soul. Went back to the kitchen and back to her cooking. She heard voices again only more loudly the second time. No one present at all. After about 6 months of this type of thing, she asked the older farmer if he ever heard voices in the entryway only to find no one there. According to her kids, she was absolutely dumbfounded when he told her that the skeletons of his parents were in the hall closet in boxes and that that might be what she was hearing was his folks arguing in death like they did when they were alive. Being ever curious, Cousin's Kids found a way to sneak a peek into the front entryway closet. Sure enough there were 2 boxes full of bones sitting on opposite shelves marked with the names of his parents! So, to prove to us that they weren't lying, Cousin's Kids helped us sneak a peek at the boxes of bones in the closet. Fascinating and weird all at the same time. And our parents were horrified to learn months later that we had sneaked a peek at the skeletal remains of Older Farmer's parents. To me, it was one of the coolest things ever. Proof that the dead talked coming from distant family members and then seeing the bones that were helping cause the talking that was being heard.
I might not have been allowed to use "the gift" or to talk about it in front of my folks, or most of my friends, but, it was part of my family's past and part of my bloodline. What a better way to learn more about your family than at a huge family reunion where you could learn family secrets and find real skeletons in the closet.