By Sara G. Stephens
My childhood memories of the Stephens family reunions might well have inspired a Norman Rockwell painting. Every summer, my brother, sister and I squirmed with anticipation in the family station wagon, which coursed the 285-mile stretch from Cleveland, Ohio to Kokomo, Indiana. The car was hot, with no a/c to cool us. But we didn’t care. All we could think about was Aunt Vi’s homemade ice-cream, hearing Uncle Donald recite “The Village Blacksmith,” and playing with all our cousins under the old covered bridge in Highland Park. It didn’t matter that we hadn’t seen each other since the last reunion. There was no awkwardness or anxiety. Tradition made everything cozy and perfect, blending homestyle comfort with the unparalleled titillation of travel.
My family moved to Texas in the late ‘70s, and the annual pilgrimage to Kokomo became impractical. We lost access to the reunions and to all the ways in which they enriched our young lives. We became disconnected in the same way that other families disconnect from their roots as they distance themselves from each other and from the traditions that bond.
It’s a common occurrence within any reunion’s lifespan, beginning with optimism, building with anticipation and careful planning, flourishing into maturity, then glowing brightly with the births of new generations. At some point, however, the torch that awaits passage to the energetic, capable hands of the next generation never gets passed. Everyone’s too busy to notice or to care. Or it’s just assumed that someone else will take on the role, or that Aunt Laura, who’s been lovingly cultivating the reunions for years, certainly won’t mind continuing her role for just one more round.
And this is where an event that has served generations embarks upon a slippery slope. In many cases, the reunion at this point becomes a dimly lit, low-spirited gathering of patched-up families. It is close to vanishing, and with it will disappear the many gifts it brings.
The Gifts of the Reunion
Family reunions are unique in what they offer. No other event can connect you with the people who share your ancestry. This is your ultra-personal network, your tribe. You wouldn’t be here without it, and connecting with it serves to connect you more with yourself.
Reunions, like a good roux, serve to thicken and enrich our family heritage. Children learn about family history from adults who enjoy teaching it. Far from the classroom lessons flatly delivered from impersonal textbooks, these teachings are masterfully and colorfully told by actual eyewitnesses, grandparents who lived through the histories or who heard about them from their own grandparents, and so on down the line.
Reunions add to a person’s definition of self, extending the answer of “who am I” way beyond the parameters of where I live, what school I go to, or what I do for a living. We fortify an otherwise weakening role of extended family, and the spirit of this family envelopes us, reinventing our sense of self, home and culture.
I recently read a poem by Dr. Maya Angelou that captures much of the “essence” of the family reunion and why it’s such an important tradition to uphold. The poem, though titled “Black Family Pledge,” speaks to all ethnicities and cultures. Here is an excerpt:
Because we have forgotten our ancestors, our children no longer give us honor.
Because we have lost the path our ancestors cleared, kneeling in perilous undergrowth, our children cannot find their way.
Because we have banished the God of our ancestors, our children cannot pray.
Because the long wails of our ancestors have faded beyond our hearing, our children cannot hear us crying.
Because we have abandoned our wisdom of mothering and fathering, our befuddled children give birth to children they neither want nor understand.
Because we have forgotten how to love, the adversary is within our gates, and holds us up to the mirror of the world, shouting, Regard the loveless.
Therefore, we pledge to bind ourselves again to one another;
To embrace our lowliest,
To keep company with our loneliest,
To educate our illiterate,
To feed our starving,
To clothe our ragged,
To do all good things, knowing that we are more than keepers of our brothers and sisters. We are our brothers and sisters.
So when you notice that your family reunion light is dimming, fight the urge to look the other way. Take a deep breath, pick up the torch, and carry it proudly, so that you, your children, and all future generations of your family’s spirit may be guided by its nurturing light.
Three Ways to Pass the Torch
- Tap into your reunion committee,if you have one, for folks who are willing and able to assume the duties of organizing next year’s reunion. You might even offer to stay on the committee as an advisor for a year or two until the new organizers feel more comfortable with the processes.
- For smaller families, or those that simply don’t have committees, announce at this year’s reunion that you are seeking an apprentice organizer for next year’s event. Once you and your assistant have gone through the process together for a year, he or she will be ready to take on the project for the following year (if you’re not the organizer, step up and accept the apprenticeship).
- If you can’t hang in there as reunion organizer for another year, document details for event planning in a Reunion Planning notebook or journal. Note details like venue, local hotels, activity timelines, and contact lists for family members to invite. Then pass off the book to your successor. Your careful documentation will make his or her job much easier, and you can offer phone number or email if they have questions.
- Be open and accepting of changes to the way you used to do things. Respect the ideas of your successor and welcome them as a source of new energy for your family reunions.
Taking the Torch
If you’re the person who will be taking over the reunion planning, good for you! You have taken on an important role. For however unsung your heroics in this capacity might be, know that you are creating a space for memories that will fuel your family for a lifetime.
As you eagerly embark on your planning, be sure to respect the efforts of your predecessor(s). It’s natural to want to put your stamp on the event you will be organizing. But resist the urge to change everything just for the sake of change. Any changes you make should be done with an eye toward improving the reunion and with tactful consideration of all the work done by previous organizers.
Tips for Planning a Reunion
- Plan early. Get a jump on things a full year before the event. You don’t have to do it all yourself. Distribute the workload among several relatives. You can even create a committee.
- Communicate. Have someone send out letters, evites or both for “save the date,” and other details as they are confirmed. This person also can create a flyer to generate excitement, announcing new games or activities for which attendees can plan.
- Create a flexible schedule. Consider spreading your activities out over a weekend. Activities can be planned for the daytime, allowing individual families to choose which they want to attend. Only evening events are scheduled for the entire group. Evenings tend to be cooler and more accessible for many, ensuring a greater turnout for these activities.
- Make it affordable. Carve out a realistic space between throwing a “Page-6” event and simply dragging out some lawn chairs and sandwiches. You want exciting activities, and they cost money, but you don’t want to go overboard or start charging for tickets. On top of gas money and hotel space, the price of admission can climb too high for many family members to attend (or even to want to attend). You can certainly defray some of the event costs by having a raffle or selling t-shirts at the reunion.
- Mix it up. Make sure there’s something for everybody who attends to enjoy. Organize a game of softball, a scavenger hunt or a talent show. Sprinkle some craft items on a table. And, of course, set aside at least one time where the older folks can talk about family stories for everyone to hear and pass on to future generations.
- Deal with the name issue. We’ve all been there… that awkward moment at a family reunion when a friendly relative strikes up conversation with you. She knows your name, but you haven’t a clue who she is, or maybe you know the face but not the name. This is the number-one reason people do not interact with others at, or sometimes even attend, their family reunions. Nobody is immune to this anxiety. So just address it up front. Pick up some name labels and markers and place them on a table at the point of entry to the reunion. Encourage everyone to wear their labels, bringing light to the fact that folks are not alone in not knowing everyone’s names. You will be amazed at how this simple effort will get the place buzzing with friendly interactions.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. This event is not about perfection, but rather enjoyment. Once things get rolling, don’t worry about work, schedules, or kids getting dirty in the mud. Just kick back and make some magical memories.