I'm six. Mom stops the car, and I hop out the passenger side door to swing the two manual driveway gates open for her. I secure them to the fence with the chain loops Grandpa fashioned and welded to the fence's pipe framing to hold the open gates in place. It is June and hot, but for inexplicable reasons, Grandma’s yard mutes seasonal laws. Their yard is always more refreshing than the surrounding summer, with a pervasive breeze. Mom slowly pulls our hulking Bonneville into the large driveway. I unhook the loops, swing the gates closed, and sprint up the drive to reconnect with her.

Jenna and I run around Grandma and Grandpa's house; she’s only two. The yard, entirely fenced-in, appears to go on forever, like the hills in The Sound of Music. Jenna doesn’t catch me, even though I slow down as I run past the decorative cement ducks standing in a line, perpetually in the process of crossing the yard. I pause near the statue likeness of the Blessed Mother, standing watch over the yard, and take a quick glance at a cat on the roof of their house. The cat is not real – it is ceramic, but Grandpa suggests that the squirrels can’t tell the difference.

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I head up the back steps to Grandma and Grandpa's house. Grandpa calls them the "back steps," but they seem like the front to me, because they’re the only way we ever enter their home. The steps are steep, cement, and there are a lot of them – five or six at least – but I always hold onto the black wrought iron railing because Grandpa, in his gruff but somehow pleasant voice, says I must. Two lawn chairs share the top of the porch. In the evenings, Grandma and Grandpa sit together outside and watch the cars pass.

I’m still six. We are over at Grandma and Grandpa's house for a summer picnic. The whole family is there, my aunt and uncle, and numerous great aunts and uncles. In my family, the great aunts and uncles significantly outnumbered the younger crew. I grew up close to them, both physically and emotionally. They were the family I knew best – gatherings, vacations, holidays.

Now that I have set the family table, I will dismiss using the “greats” for simplicity, as I paint the rest of the family picture during my youth.

The picnic day was perfect, sunny but not too hot and not too humid. The smoke from Grandpa’s charcoal grill dissipated as he had already prepared most of the food. Uncle Richard and Dad judiciously filled paper plates with thick burgers and sides.

Family celebration or a garden party outside in the backyard.

Image credit: Jozef Polc ©

Uncle John and Aunt Helen were there. Uncle John was throwing lawn Jarts with Grandpa, Uncle Steve, and Uncle Joe. Jarts were a brand of lawn darts, heavy and sharp, and they were banned from sale in the United States for many years for the severe danger they presented. The object of the game was to toss these heavily-weighted spikes in an arc through the air and land them in a plastic loop placed many paces away.

The game was essentially Horseshoes’ dangerous cousin – if you are in the South, think Cornhole. A successful landing in the loop was termed a RINGER, or at least that’s what I heard Uncle Steve keep saying.

“There’s another RINGER!”

Grandpa missed his shot but kept his smile as he took a slug of his Ballantine Ale, straight from its golden can.

During my youth, Uncle John and my second cousin Stephen sowed the seeds that grew into my passion for weight training. I have written about them before and won’t repeat here. It suffices to say that they significantly impacted my life. My positive experiences in their basement gym have proved indelible.

At six years old, I was much concerned with how much weight I could clean and press over my head. I vividly recall setting a goal to complete a sixty-pound clean and press. Strong – that is what I wanted to be. All these years later, strong is what I still strive to be.

While Uncle John was scoring “ringers,” Aunt Helen was sitting with Mom, Grandma and a pack of aunts nibbling on a well-done burger and some of her famous jello, filled with carrot shavings and walnut pieces. I loved Aunt Helen – her jello, not so much.

My aunts held a special place in my heart. They always left a strong impression on me.

Mom was talking about the trouble I was having with my legs – pain around the growth plates near my knees.

“The doctor says he’s having growing pains,” Mom said, tossing her empty plate into an A&P paper bag. “The pain is keeping him awake at night. Last night was bad.”

Aunt Elaine nods knowingly.

“Stephen used to have those when he was growing up,” Aunt Helen interjected. She helped herself to more jello. “The doctor said the pain was from his muscles. It’s probably because of his muscles.”

Hearing those words triggered a stunning paradigm shift. I was having pain at night because I had muscles. I had strong leg muscles!

I don’t know if there was a single grain of truth in Aunt Helen’s statement. I didn’t care then (or now). She was my aunt, and I accepted her explanation as fact. I can’t say for sure that I didn’t cry myself to sleep the next time those pains struck, but I know there was at least a part of me that experienced a sense of pride. Her words made the situation more tolerable.

It’s because of his muscles.

The perverse thing about growing up so close to great aunts, uncles, and grandparents, is that when you reach late adulthood, they aren’t around to enjoy it with you – only the memories live on. Some fade and others stick with you forever.

I thought about that picnic recently when a colleague mentioned his five-year-old was experiencing growing pains. I passed along Aunt Helen’s sage wisdom, figuring it could only help. The memory warmed my heart.

Tell him the pain is because of his muscles.