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Under the Midnight Sun

At family reunions remember to include those who do not share your common history.


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My sister-in-law was ready to toss me and my laptop computer out the kitchen window . . . she said I was obsessed.

I just returned from a family reunion under the Midnight Sun in Fairbanks, Alaska. It's been five years since the last reunion, and it was a long way to travel for many family members. We wanted to make the most of our time. We don't see each other much outside the reunions, distance and daily life separates us.

Time and distance notwithstanding, my sister-in-law was ready to toss me and my laptop computer out the kitchen window . . . she said I was obsessed.

I set up camp at the far end of her long kitchen table, with my laptop and tape recorder. On my laptop, I was working to put the final touches on a family history to distribute as a gift to all families present at reunion picnic. The tape recorder, with its microphone propped up in a small jelly jar at the center of the table was at the ready, capturing every snippet of new information from the collective minds of my brothers as they gathered at the table. Every day for at least some period of the day, for several days in a row, I sat at my post, working to complete my project and engaging my brothers in storytelling. Even though the boys grew up amid hard times, as my brother Jim says repeatedly, "We had so much fun!" I don't want to lose that.

Revisiting the past was great fun, some heartfelt moments and lots of laughter. I would like to say, "a good time was had by all" . . . and that's true, to a point. My brothers and I and those of our children present relished the colorful stories. They wore thin on the spouses, who collected in the living room, passing time with kind tolerance, waiting for the next activity to begin. It set me to thinking.

I remembered back to our last reunion in Denver where lots more of the family could come; but on the day of the big picnic, seated at picnic tables under the pavilion, I observed individual families tended to cluster together, rather than mixing with the cousins and becoming reacquainted. For many of the younger generation, their familiarity with extended family was limited by what they had heard from their parents--for the most part, we were strangers.

A common thread to both reunions was the challenge of bringing people together.

As with all history, it's important that we learn from the past. We have now moved our reunions up to every two years, rather than five, recognizing that time is precious. Our family is so dispersed, an annual reunion is cost-prohibitive. My family will be hosting the next reunion on our own turf. We expect a lot of people, and as much as we want to show them the sights and give them a great Utah vacation, our primary focus is to make sure everyone feels included, that they feel a part of the family.

Drawing from our experience, what we did right and what we wished we'd have done, I've put together few ideas we'll put in practice the next time--ideas you might wish to consider and expand when getting together for your next reunion.

1. Be mindful of others. First and foremost, it's very important to be aware that others may be present who do not share your same experience; who may be downright bored with the family stories; who may, indeed, feel left out and may decide they'd rather stay home the next time. As with anything, respect for others and for their experience is key to maintaining good relationships. Keep in mind not only those who married into the family and what they might be experiencing, but also the younger generation who feel like strangers, especially the adolescents. Little children, it seems, never have this problem. They make friends easily and barriers are few.

2. Engage everyone in the conversation. The secret to engaging others is to make fair portions of your conversation relevant to those who do not share your common history. For those listening in to your family stories, invite them to share some of their own stories and experiences, as well; then be a good (responsive) listener. Whatever your topic of conversation, invite others to participate along the same lines. You might invite them to tell about their own family; their place in the family; their family traditions and favorite stories. A great ice breaker is to ask their earliest recollection--we all have one, you know. Such questions are things pretty much everyone can answer, and it may give them a sense of participation and inclusion. I have observed that even those who have been in the family for decades, can still feel on the outside at their spouse's family reunion.

A little advance planning can go a long way. You could ask everyone to bring along with them a favorite story to share with the group, maybe a childhood experience, an ancestral story, or the story of their courtship--this may be especially interesting to their own children. Another advance planning idea is to ask family members to contribute something they know about their spouse's or child's life experience that you inquire about or weave into the conversation. A word of caution here. Always, always, be sensitive and respectful. Avoid topics or stories that should not be shared publicly or stories that could embarrass anyone. You don't want to remind people of things they'd rather forget. Even cute stories can have painful barbs.

3. Include topics from different eras. Another good way to engage others is to talk about things they know something about. We all lived (and do live) in a particular era and many share common experiences. You might ask, When did you grow up? What music did you listen to? What were your favorite movies? What fashions did you wear? What did you do for fun? What memorable events do you recall. Even the children can be included in this conversation . . . and should be. The goal is to find common ground in people, places, and things. And life is universal -- experiences from one era easily translate to experiences in another.

One activity suitable for a relatively small group is something of a parlor game where people draw a single word or phrase from a basket and tell whatever comes to mind from what is written. The idea is to spark people's memory and give them opportunities to express and to share. Others might then volunteer their idea on that topic--it could be a whole evening affair. Ideas for topics might be oldies but goodies; the Kennedys; Elvis; neighbors; trips; treats; holidays; childhood prank; funny experience; in the news. The list is endless. If they don't relate to one topic, let them draw another. This might be the case for generational topics such as the Great Depression or Heavy Metal, but then again, you might be surprised at what Aunt Martha has to say about heavy metal.

4. Plan group activities. Even with small groups, be sure to plan activities that everyone can join and everyone can enjoy. The goal is bringing people together. But do not over-schedule. You do want to leave enough time for general visiting. Here are a few ideas:

  • Sightseeing. If the reunion is a one-day affair, sightseeing may not be an option. If the reunion spans several days, plan to visit local sights. It's good to offer a variety of options to suit various interests and physical limitations, but it's also good to plan at least one activity that everyone can join. We've found a scenic train ride is great activity for including everyone. · Play Ball. At a big gathering, organized activities like ball games are great for mixing the generations. Those unable to play will enjoy watching . . . or just visiting.
  • Karaoke. We also found karaoke to be a great ice breaker at large gatherings. Young and old alike enjoy karaoke, either participating or listening. And it's interesting to see what unlikely partners might team up for a song. A sing-along is also great, if you provide the words and can pick songs people relate to and enjoy. Music can really speak to people and you may find a new appreciation for certain family members as they share in the fun.
  • Rock Painting. There was a 21-year gap between our first reunion in 1979 and our second in 2000. A lot had changed in our family. At that first reunion, we set up a place for rock painting, with the finished pieces to be given away as tokens of remembrance. Everyone I know still has his or her special rock. So rock painting or something similar could serve as a gathering place, again, with renewed appreciation for latent or unrecognized talents.
  • Shared History. One activity that engages everyone is to build a giant pedigree chart or family tree. At our last reunion, we tacked a roll of brown paper the wall of the pavilion and sketched out a pedigree chart, asking each family to fill in their "branch." Or you could bring one of those giant commercial charts that you work on from year to year. We also set up a table near the pedigree chart for picture sharing. Many people brought pictures old and new to share. It's a great collector of people. Even the children are interested in family pictures.

5. Entertainment. Although a spectator activity, the right kind of entertainment can create warm feelings and bring people together. Karaoke is one example, another might be a talent show, and yet another is to get someone whom you know in advance has a talent others will enjoy--the entertainment factor is key. You want people to have fun. My family enjoys my brother's recitations. At our Alaska reunion, he recited "The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill" by Robert Service, a noted Yukon poet. Humor is key. My father was a musician who sang and played guitar, so we also like to hear my brother sing the olds songs, mostly he chooses the humorous ditties. At this reunion one of his choices was a song he used to sing to our niece--the first grandchild--when she was first born, "The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane." Not as risqué as it sounds.

As it turns out, my sister-in-law did not throw me out. She said knowing what I was working on, she guessed it was okay. She even drove me to Kinko's to make the necessary copies. But I heard what she was saying and I learned something. I think it's definitely worth the effort. With a little conscious effort, you can plan a reunion that makes everyone feel part of the family. You are limited only by your creativity. The goal is to create a friendly environment, receptive to everyone. The reward is hosting a reunion people look forward to and like to attend.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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