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Celebrating family, Aunt Mary and southern Indiana

My bag is packed. Soon I will be on an airplane with my cousin Shirley from Harlem and my cousin Maxine, who lives in Helena. Our destination is Louisville, Ky. We'll pick up a rental car, cross the Ohio River and drive the winding River Road to Elizabeth, Ind., and out into the country toward Laconia and our Aunt Mary. We go to join with Indiana family to celebrate Aunt Mary's 98th birthday.

When I return to Indiana, I return to my first home, to a reunion with Indiana kinfolk, and to refresh my love for southern Indiana. Southern Indiana is different from the flat land of the industrial north and the agrarian center of the state. Geography here centers along the rugged hills above the Ohio River, the red clay countryside, dotted with tobacco fields, small subsistence farms and tiny towns. The land makes the people and these people are warm-hearted and friendly.

Traveling with my Montana cousins is a bonus. Uncle Jim was the first of our family to discover Montana. My dad, Paul, followed a few years later. My northern cousins and I did not grow up together. By the time my family moved to Harlem, they were off to college. I was still in junior high. Our travels to reunions with Indiana family have given us a chance to know one another. On the road we exchange our own family stories, compare notes and speculate about our fathers' growing-up years.

Our Aunt Mary, a gentle lady, has long been the family matriarch. When she was a child, her farm family always had food but no money. She wore clothes to school made from my grandmother's dresses and cut-down coats. But she and every one of her siblings finished high school. Graduation from high school during the Great Depression was a major accomplishment. After graduation she married my Uncle Paul. They bought a nearby farm in the hills near the Ohio River and raised ten children. Aunt Mary is the repository of our family history. She holds a wealth of community stories, and is murder at the card table. This week she marks her 98th birthday.

On Saturday, family and friends will gather at the grade school cafeteria. All Aunt Mary's children, grand-children, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren will be there, along with many nieces and nephews and their families. We'll fill up on mountains of fried chicken, steaming corn on the cob and Aunt Dixie's famous coconut cake. We will swill gallons of iced tea, partake of hugs and kisses all around, pose for hundreds of photos and afterward collapse back at Aunt Mary's brick house on the hill.

There we will do what we all do best — talk, eat and play cards. We'll ask questions and soak up the clues to family mysteries. Aunt Mary thinks it is her job to feed us more than we can eat. We will revolve around the card table where sweet Aunt Mary, showing no mercy, regularly whomps our butts, no matter what the game. Even when we deal from a stack of five decks, Aunt Mary knows where every card lies, who played what and which card has not yet been played. During our last visit we Montana cousins struggled to learn the rudiments of Euchre. This year we intend to master the game.

We'll talk family. And we'll talk politics. Or perhaps I should say we'll listen politics. Aunt Mary knows the history of every president, who was in Congress, what bills were passed, the goofs and the goods on all. This woman with a high school education regularly shames us with her knowledge and her memory.

We'll spend time with our Indiana cousins, cementing those bonds more tightly. This year my Indiana cousin Shirley and I have arranged to spend special time renewing our own ties. Although only two years my senior, when I was a rather lost little girl, Indiana Shirley took me in hand and taught me family values of responsibility and service — basic tenets of life. Through distance and time we drifted apart, so I am excited to have this chance to reconnect with her.

We will pile into cars to visit King's Cemetery where many of the Ashton family pioneers are buried. It sits above Tobacco Landing, a post established by our merchant ancestor. We'll go on to the Dogwood Cemetery where my grandmother's family rests. Far from morbid, these tours of the countryside graveyards are joyful. They trigger memories and elicit more stories.

Indiana is the first country I loved. It holds my first family. It nurtured me. I'm going home for a visit. Happy birthday, Aunt Mary.

(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High School in 1963 and left for good. She finds, upon her return, that things are a little different. Keep in touch with her at


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