Some people dread reunions. One person I know told me she used to spend the whole time at her family's reunion trying to avoid her Aunt Edna, who would otherwise scoop her up in heavy arms, cover her with wet kisses, and exclaim at how tall she'd grown. Other people look forward to reunions, if for no other reason than the food. My own Aunt Pat makes a mean rhubarb pie.
I remember my mother's family reunions as gatherings taking place under a pavilion by a lake, with a feast of kitchen handiwork from the hands of the family's renowned cooks spread across two long tables, and dozens of people I didn't know lining up to fill their plates. There were usually some "housekeeping announcements," and thanks all around to the family who had hosted it. I don't remember learning much about my family at these occasions—I may have been too young—but we always had fun.
I haven't made it back to Michigan for a reunion in years. But I still get invited, and I've been happy to see that attempts have been made to make them more than yearly food fests. Some family members have put together keepsakes to help mark the occasions, and remind everyone about the larger family of which they are a part. One year one of my aunts put together a cookbook of the favorite recipes of people from several branches of the family, and included in it pedigree charts to show where in the family tree each contributor fit. Another year a distant cousin put together a small bound report of family information, complete with a family crest, a picture of my great-grandmother, and a genealogy report for each branch of the family tree (names, dates and who begat whom).
Living so far from the rest of my mother's clan means it's unlikely I'll ever be called upon to host one of the annual gatherings. But I have given thought to some things I might do to organize and host a reunion, should the occasion ever arise. I like the idea of making family history come alive for everyone in the family, not just those who have been bitten by the genealogy bug and love haunting city clerks' offices looking for vital records. To that end, here are some of the things I'd do:
- I'd ask each family group to spend the next year researching one part of the family tree, or one specific thing on the tree. Is there a family mystery to solve? Is there a piece of information that has been eluding capture? Maybe concentrated effort by one family group could help answer old questions.
- I'd organize a year-long scavenger hunt, sending people off to find vital records, old photos, funny family stories.
- I'd challenge the families present to see who can find out the most about their own family in a year, or to see who can dig up the most interesting stories about ancestors.
- I'd challenge each family to come up with a creative way to "report back" at the next reunion: a formal presentation with slides and pictures? Family skits? Collages? Quilts? Poems, Songs, stories? Scrapbooks?
- I'd offer prizes to families that "complete the mission," to families that add a branch or generation to the family tree, and to families that have the most creative "report back."
- I'd keep people's motivation up with communication throughout the year: a Christmas newsletter, letters at Valentine's Day, Cinqo de Mayo, the first day of summer, etc.
- I'd ask families to donate items for prizes, and/or money for a fund to use for mailings and publications.
- I'd start a "getting to know you" segment at the reunion, where one family is featured each year.
- I'd also take responsibility for recording for posterity all the family information reported back at the next reunion.
At least, that's what I'd do if I were organizing a reunion.