Family Reunions bring out the best in us. They truly do. They remind us not only of the people with whom we belong, but they remind us of the culture and heritage to which we belong. These are things quickly disappearing from our culture, like truths written on the shore just before the tide. I strongly encourage you to attend at least one family reunion in your lifetime, even if it’s not your own.
You will meet three unmistakable people at a family reunion.
The first person you meet is your Mother—not as a mother, but as a sister and cousin and aunt. It’s an amazing and beautiful phenomenon. Your entire life, you’ve known her as “mom”—as the strong, dedicated, unbreakable woman who has worked diligently to provide for you and your siblings, and just as soon as the first of her cousins arrives and they see one another, her entire countenance will change before your eyes.
Suddenly, she isn’t your mother who is weary from working so hard for so many years; rather, she is a young girl again, smiling and laughing with someone who has known her longer than you can even figure out. It is like seeing an entirely different person, brought to life in some way by the presence of someone who knows her deepest dreams, her deepest secrets, her history.
She is like a morning glory that is full of life and growth, but in the morning light, opening up and revealing a beauty you could not have known otherwise. Cherish this moment. Cherish the knowledge that she is not merely a woman who has lived difficult years, but that she is a woman full of memories, dreams, and passions.
Cherish this revelation of your mother… or father… or spouse… or sibling… or grandparent... that is, after all, why we gather at reunions: to celebrate the friendships of those who’ve known us and shared our lives the longest.
The second person you meet at a Family Reunion is The Uninvited Guest. As someone who has tried desperately to “plan” past reunions, I can tell you that—just like life—sometimes the best moments are the ones you could never have planned.
Several years ago, I was introduced to my Aunt Verna. She was also my Uncle John’s Aunt Verna. And my second cousin’s Aunt Verna. And my grandfather’s Aunt Verna. To be honest, part of the fun was figuring out how she really was related. She was actually from another branch of our family, but it didn’t matter. She hadn’t received an invitation, but Uncle John made sure she was there with us. At 94 years of age, she was the jewel in the crown of our gathering. The stories she brought with her that day were absolutely irreplaceable. You can imagine, I’m sure, that her eyesight was not as sharp as it once had been; her memory made up for it, however. I spent considerable time sitting with her as she looked through an old scrapbook of photos that few of us recognized anymore. The details she remembered as she perused the photos were simply astounding. As genealogists, we live for those surprises. We could never have anticipated or even known to desire such an interaction. At your own reunion, it may not be an Aunt Verna. It may be a cousin or a parent or a great uncle’s third wife’s child from her first marriage. You just never know what treasures they hold.
Sadly, there is a bit of a blank page in my family history. My great-grandfather was killed very early in his life, and his wife was left to raise her children without him. Because of their circumstances, much of their stories have been swallowed up in that old newspaper obit of his. But as I sat speaking with Aunt Verna, we came upon a photo I hadn’t previously recognized. It was a family portrait—the man looking as sharp as all the men in our clan ever do, and the woman and their sons surrounding him. It was my great-grandparents, Aunt Verna told me; it was Uncle Ernest and Aunt Gustie. I’ll never forget hearing her pronounce my great-grandmother’s name—apparently, I’d been mispronouncing it for years. There’s something you don’t learn from obituaries and census records! But here’s what really surprised me. Aunt Gustie was stunningly beautiful. Her hair was dark, not quite black, and her smile kindly and gentle. What Aunt Verna said caught me off guard: “Aunt Gustie was always so beautiful... you have her features.”
And that was the third person I met at our family reunion: Myself. In a family of strong physical features, I have always felt like an oddball, not really “looking like” the others. Without seeking it out, I was given the gift of belonging with this woman I never knew. I couldn’t tell you why that made such a difference for me, but it did; it absolutely did. It instilled in me a confidence to be who I am, to trust my heritage, and to not be so obsessed with making everyone happy all the time. Maybe, I realized, I could just be myself and love those around me and it would be enough.
It was enough. It is enough. It is a gift I will treasure for the rest of my days—finding a part of myself when I had expected only to meet my relatives.
If you have a chance to attend a Family Reunion this summer, I strongly encourage it; if not, I urge you to find yourself among folks who help you find yourself. In a society as lost and confused as ours, it is more important than ever that we know ourselves—what is important to us, what features we share with others, and the history to which we are rooted.
Those roots may just get us through the winter.