HOW TO HAVE A GREAT FAMILY REUNION

On the last Saturday of June each year, my first cousins, my siblings and I – and our parents, spouses, kids, in-laws, grandkids, and other cousins and friends – gather for a long weekend in Mississippi to reconnect and strengthen our relationship as extended family.

We started this tradition in 2000. Over the years, as new spouses and other friends and extended family drop in, we have learned that they consider our reunion unusual in that we all like each other, get along well, and choose to be together. In fact, we go to a lot of trouble to be together.

Here’s how it all started.

My dad had one brother, Uncle Yewell Wayne (which Dad, as a child, shortened to “Nayne”) and one sister, Aunt Ella Mary. My brother, sister and I grew up in Mississippi some 30 miles from Aunt Mary and her husband, our Uncle Lyman, and our first cousins Mac, Sarah Lynn and Lisa. Our ages were complimentary: Mac and Anita were the same age, and Bob and Sarah Lynn were two years younger, so Anita and Sarah played together and Mac and Bob ran around together. As babies of our family, Lisa and I brought up the rear and were playmates from the word go.

Uncle Nayne and Aunt Lois lived in Louisville, Kentucky, so we rarely saw our more distant first cousins, twins Perry and Kerry and their younger sisters Patsy and Nancy. But they came to Mississippi for one glorious week every summer, and we had a grand time. Perry and Kerry hung out with Mac and Bob, and Patsy and Nancy and Lisa and I played together.

We were prototypical children of the 1970s. I remember we all went on a hiking trip one year, all riding together in a big Chevy van, and on the way home we sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” – still receiving heavy rotation airplay – to the tops of our lungs.

I had a device called a Lemon Twist, a black tube with a loop on one end and a plastic lemon on the other. It was like a one-legged jump rope; you kicked your leg to get the lemon rotating around, and you’d jump with the other leg. Lisa and Nancy and Patsy and I did the lemon twist for hours one summer, accompanied by our two favorite songs of the moment: The Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” and the Bee Gees’ “Jive Talkin’.”

(If you can’t remember what a Lemon Twist looked like, here’s a link to the commercial. It’s pretty trippy.)

And then we all grew up. We started getting into high school and summer jobs and romances and dating, and college and marrying and starting our own families; the annual visits from Louisville became fewer and fewer and the Mississippi cousins went our separate ways. We all talked by phone on major holidays, but in terms of staying close, we gradually lost touch. I think the last major visit from Louisville was in 1981.

It went on this way for years. In 1992, Mama Ferrell, our mutual grandmother and family matriarch, died. The Louisville folks came for her funeral, and we spent time with each other for the first time in many years. We stood around Mama Ferrell’s grave and said we would not go so long, next time, without seeing each other.

But then we did. And then, one day, it was the year 2000. By now one of the Louisville cousins had relocated to Knoxville, and my sister and her family were in Dallas, I was in Nashville, Mac was in Nashville, and our cousin Sarah and her husband Les were in Phoenix. On one of my visits to Mississippi, Lisa and I talked about it. It had been eight years since we had all promised to stay in touch, and we had not. So we decided we would put out feelers to see how everyone would feel about a reunion. We took a survey to see what time of year would work for the most people, whether they would want to have it in a central location like Nashville or come to Mississippi, what kind of food, what type of facility, etc.

We settled on the last Saturday in June as being after school ended but before vacation time. The Louisville cousins said they wanted to come back to Mississippi, to the place where they had come every summer during their childhood, and the rest of us agreed.

The first few years we rented a pavilion in Tishomingo State Park, a lovely rustic park built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps from locally quarried sandstone and limestone. We reserved a pavilion on a lake with paddle boats. But it was June in Mississippi, and after a few years we found a little building in the Belmont city park that offered air conditioning, a meeting room with tables and a refrigerator for perishables and a sink for washing up, and a large front lawn for what would become the annual bocce ball tournament.

We try to keep the food relatively simple. On Friday nights we gather at my parents’ house and have baked ham sandwiches, chips and dip and desserts. Saturday, the main day of the reunion, happens at Belmont City Park. For the first few years, we would grill burgers and hot dogs and bratwurst, with everyone contributing side dishes and desserts. Later we branched out into smoked pork loin or chicken quarters or barbecue, and fried chicken. We visit all day, talking, playing Apples to Apples or Pictionary or Scattergories or charades inside, and bocce ball and frisbee outside. The little ones run through sprinklers and blow bubbles and draw chalk drawings on the sidewalks. We stay until dusk, when the bats dive for mosquitoes and the swallows are roosting in their nests above the door to the building, then we clean up and load the cars to go rest. On Sunday morning, Lisa hosts a brunch at her house. By noon we begin our hugs and goodbyes (usually with a few tears), then those of us who are traveling hit the road to return home.

Everyone who can come, does. My sister and brother, now in Colorado, manage to make it about every other year. My generation’s children became instantly hooked on it, and now their children are the ones running through the sprinklers. This year we had three newborn babies, the oldest one not quite four months old. Every year there are those who cannot come, and there are some who have never been able to make it. But everyone is always welcome.

So we have a set weekend, decided upon by majority vote, that is inviolate; we have a food routine, always subject to change as circumstances change; and we have a location that works well for us. But it takes more than that to make a family reunion a success. Here are some (heretofore) unspoken rules that our family follows from year to year that take our reunion from obligation to a highlight of the calendar year.

  1. No one postures. No one brags about money or material gain or success in this or that field. As Lisa’s husband Arthur once said, marveling, “Y’all don’t try to outdo or out-talk or out-anything. Nobody puts on airs. Y’all all just like being together.
  2. No one gets into politics. Our family members’ views rank from pretty far right to pretty far left, but we leave that at the door. We may not have a lot in common in some ways, but we have a shared history, shared grandparents, shared blood, shared memories, shared values, a shared love of music, and a shared need for the enrichment that extended family brings. We love each other. We are committed to staying in touch with each other. We don’t care about our differences. We knew each other as toddlers, long before we developed those differing views. As a result, we know, love and accept each other for who and what we are. All are welcome. Anything that might cause unnecessary dissent or hurt feelings is just not on for us.
  3. Likewise, any hard feelings between individuals are either non-existent (usually, in fact, which is amazing) or, like politics, are left at the door. Everyone wants to be considerate of everyone else. No one wants to embarrass everyone present with an unseemly public display of emotion or conflict. Except love. Everyone pretty much wants to demonstrate love.
  4. No one forces anything on everyone else. No one is forced to endure long stretches of anything they don’t enjoy. No one is forced to play contact sports, no one makes everyone else a captive audience to their karaoke skills. Everything is optional. We do have a prayer over the food (of which there is a staggering quantity and variety). We do sometimes have a “hymn sing” at the old piano, which once graced my grandmother’s living room, for a few songs, anyway. But no one takes over.
  5. Profanity is left at the door and blue humor is shared discreetly one-on-one or not at all. Children are present, and while we’re not angels, there is an unspoken rule that we keep the main gathering family-friendly.
  6. By the same token, alcohol does not play a role at the three main gatherings on Friday night, Saturday during the day or Sunday morning. What people do when they return to their homes or hotel rooms is up to them.
  7. We don’t have a program. We don’t have an agenda. We don’t have a dress code (other than, hey, it’s Mississippi in June, so be cool). We don’t have a schedule. We have no pride, no ego. Our relationship with each other means more than self-promotion. Our sole purpose for the entire weekend is to just be together.
  8. Underlying all the above rules is this: we respect one another.

The bonds between cousins get stronger every year, helped along by social networking and texting. The value of extended family as friends, apparently a rarity in the world at large, is the norm for our family. We consider it a great gift, and we cultivate it and do not take it for granted. We are committed to it. Like the song says, love isn’t just something that we have, it’s something that we do.

5 thoughts on “HOW TO HAVE A GREAT FAMILY REUNION

  1. As one of the cousins that is lucky enough to be a part of (what we consider to be) the best family reunion tradition ever, you hit the nail on the head here Liz. There’s absolutely no other place I want to be on the last weekend in June. Love you all so much!

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  2. I adore this! It brings back fond memories of the Aldrich/Hinckley reunions in Iowa in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. The family is mostly gone now… Uncles, Aunts, Great Uncles, and Great Aunts, and Great Grandma Hinckley are all gone now. And cousins by the dozens have all blown away to the four corners of the globe (wait a minute, globes don’t have corners! But hopefully they have left the Earth just yet). You have succeeded in making me homesick and nostalgic and longing for a thing from the past… but in a good way. Your unspoken rules would’ve been the same ones at my family reunions. And they bring to mind the best of times.

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