Family reunions are more popular than ever

Family reunions are changing. They're more popular than ever and often involve elaborate gatherings at exotic destinations.

When Brian Walker attends family reunions, he often thinks about the lives of his ancestors: the slave girl born in Georgia in 1796, the mixed-race couple who raised a family together but could not legally marry in the segregated South, the six siblings who moved North in search of better futures.

Mr. Walker wants the young people in his family to know their roots, their history. But at this year's reunion the old stories were accompanied by something newer: the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas.

"We are the quintessential American family," says Walker, referring to the strength of his forebears. And in many ways, theirs may also be the quintessential reunion – the new American reunion. This updated version is an attempt to combine modern needs and tastes with something more timeless and permanent.

Gone are the days when a family get-together automatically meant a one-day picnic. Now, many families are doing what the Walkers do: Alternating simple reunions with longer, more elaborate gatherings. Some families skip the modest gatherings altogether, opting for expensive reunion vacations or cruises.

The result, according to experts, is a burgeoning reunion industry – fueled in part by reasonable airfares and greater disposable income – that generates more than half a billion dollars a year.

Cathy Weiss isn't surprised by those numbers. Ms. Weiss manages the Rancho de Los Caballeros dude ranch in Wickenburg, Ariz. Sixty-five percent of the ranch's business comes from family reunions, she says. Reunions are so important to the 20,000-acre ranch – which offers a golf course, tennis, guided nature tours, and hot-air ballooning – that Weiss will not book conventions during school vacation times, because those times are when reunions are most likely to take place.

Reunion spending up

Not everyone can afford week-long gatherings, but Americans are spending a fair amount in search of family closeness. According to Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions magazine, the median spending per person per reunion is $101 to $200. More than 30 percent of her readers spend more than $300 per reunion; 17 percent spend more than $400; and 9 percent spend more than $500.

Those numbers may surprise some people, but experts say they are only part of the new reunion story.

Ms. Wagner explains that interest in reunions was rekindled in 1977, after the TV series "Roots." The series spurred a huge interest in genealogy, she says, and it prompted African-Americans to learn more about their collective past.

"That's when black families started placing new and slightly more energetic focus on families," she says.

The Walkers began their reunions in Cleveland in 1995, largely because of the need for reconnection. One of Brian Walker's aunts was dismayed by all the "mischief" that she saw young blacks getting into. She believed that a strong sense of family connection might keep youngsters away from the various social ills – drugs, single parenthood, etc. – that had taken such a toll on the African-American community.

The first Walker reunion was a simple picnic. This year's gathering was a three-day event in Las Vegas. But regardless of the venue, every reunion has the same underlying theme: "Family is where you can turn for stability, comfort, and guidance," says Walker.

Other African-Americans apparently share the same values. According to the book "Family Reunion," by Jennifer Crichton (Workman Publishing, $13.95), 70 percent of nonbusiness summer travel by African-Americans is reunion-related.

But blacks are not the only Americans who are turning to the reunion for comfort, especially in the wake of Sept. 11. The Travel Industry Association says that 37 percent of Americans plan to attend a reunion this summer, up from 25 percent last year. And it's estimated that there will be 200,000 reunions in the United States this year.

"Knowing where you come from sort of gives you a little head start on where you're going," says Wagner. "People want to know 'who I am' by finding out 'who my family is.'" And sometimes, she adds, "people go to reunions just to discover that they have family."

People want plenty to do

Even with the renewed interest in kinship, today's reunions are shaped by an entertainment-hungry culture.

Giving people lots of activities – especially those they really enjoy – is crucial to the success of a reunion. "Otherwise, they won't be happy," says Wagner. "When people are golfing [for example], they are doing what they would rather be able to do at the moment."

The Walkers included a formal banquet and a bowling party in their lineup, and they allowed plenty of time for individuals to explore Las Vegas.

They have always been careful not to overlook the junior members of the family. During Brian Walker's two years as president of the reunion committee, he planned plenty of events. "The real purpose," he says, "[was] to keep the children involved."

Although activities do keep people engaged, say sociologists, they also act as icebreakers for families that are geographically splintered and whose members may know each other only through reunions. In a sense, they provide a kind of common ground on which to build.

Common ground is important, says Crichton, the author, because most American families no longer share the same towns. "Today our sense of home is rooted less in a place than in the family spirit itself," she writes in her book. "Reunions reinvent home, place, and culture."

Martin Munguia of Seattle knows all about the importance of reconnecting with a sense of family and culture. Mr. Munguia grew up in Los Angeles, where he attended his mother's family's reunion on the Sunday before Memorial Day each year. There were always picnic tables laden with Mexican specialities: carne asada (a steak dish), tortillas, rice and beans, and homemade chili. Hot dogs were as American as the menu got.

But after Munguia moved to Seattle in 1985, he lost contact with his extended family members. He didn't see many of them again until June this year, when he traveled back to L.A. for the 30th family reunion.

Munguia was pleased to find himself warmly welcomed back into the fold, along with his wife and two young daughters.

Suddenly, he says, he realized that "the family connection that had been theoretically important to me in the past now was really important."

He also learned, during a tug-of-war contest, just how important a sense of family loyalty and identity can be to some folks.

Because there were more people on the Barrios team (his mother's relatives), Munguia and his brother joined the Ledesma side (which had married into the family). Munguia didn't think anything about it, until his younger sister said, "You traitors can go to the other side, but we're still going to win."

The Barrioses did win two of three pulls, but afterward, he relates, "My sister still said, 'I can't believe you did that.' "

The pull of nostalgia

Acceptance and validation from one's family have always been important, says Robert Billingham, a sociologist who specializes in family relationships at Indiana University. "We are emotionally more connected to members of our family than we are to the neighbors, so we struggle to hang on to the connection to that family."

That's why, he adds, there may be a certain amount of nostalgic illusion attached to many family gatherings. People want to think that their family is more perfect than it is, and they want their family to approve of their lives and their choices – to recognize "that I'm not who you thought I was."

But, says Professor Billingham, "if the American family sat down and took objective observations of how we are as parents, how we are as family members, we would be ashamed of ourselves, because we don't put family first. So the belief that 'my family is important to me' is crucial."

Shared roots may bring people to a family reunion initially, say experts, but sharing family stories is what brings people closer.

Lynn Fairbank of Dedham, Mass., president of the Fairbanks family association, would agree. (Her branch dropped the final "s" from the family name.)

The Fairbanks family has deep and distinguished roots. One family member was vice president under Theodore Roosevelt. The Fairbanks House, which was built in 1636 for English-born Jonathan Fairebankes, is the oldest surviving timber-frame house in North America. Eight generations of Fairbankses lived in the house, until Rebecca Fairbanks was forced to sell in the late 1800s.

The family's annual reunion began in 1902 to celebrate the fact that the family raised enough money to buy the house back from developers.

Celebrating 100 years of reunions

Most Fairbanks reunions are one-day events that include speakers who talk about old houses or the family history. There are also demonstrations of how Colonial craftsmen did their work, such as cutting lumber or making pottery.

But this year, says Ms. Fairbank, the family held a three-day event, which began with a talk at the New England Historic Genealogical Society about Fairbanks family members.

"A lot of people don't have any idea where they're from," she says. But "you are who your relatives were, and you can't understand what's happening in the present if you don't understand what has happened in the past."

That's why, Fairbank adds, the family no longer sweeps its skeletons under the rug.

She admits, for example, that Rebecca Fairbanks was "a real piece of work." Even after Rebecca had sold the family home, she wanted to live in it.

She convinced the new owner, a Mrs. Codman, to let her move back in, but Rebecca didn't like any of Codman's friends. Whenever the owner had company, Rebecca would be so inhospitable that she would drive them away.

"People celebrate family myths," says author Crichton, "because these stories give them a sense of themselves as belonging to a group that is special."

But sometimes, she admits, the funniest family stories aren't so amusing when they happen. One New Hampshire couple, who asked not to be identified, can attest to that.

Earlier this month, the two attended his family's reunion, where they met a few "characters," including one who brought his trusty hunting knife to the picnic.

At dessert time, when people realized that they had nothing with which to cut the homemade pies, the hunter pulled out his dirty knife and sliced a pie while horrified attendees watched.

"That knife had cut up more deer than I could ever count," says the husband.

The stunned family remained silent while the hunter cut up all five pies. Those who wanted something sweet to end the meal managed to grab a blueberry cake and cut it into pieces with a spoon.

Organizers might point to this as an example of why reunions must be planned down to the last detail. In fact, one hallmark of the new reunion is meticulous planning. Crichton likens it to orchestrating a wedding.

But no matter how sophisticated Americans get, say sociologists, family get-togethers will always be a bit unpredictable and messy. No amount of strategizing will completely take that away.

The New Hampshire couple agree. As the husband says with a slightly bewildered laugh, "It's your roots. You can't get away from it because you share the same last name."

Ten commandments of reunion etiquette

1. Thou shalt not forget thine ordinary manners nor thy common civility, just because thou art amongst thy brothers and sisters.

2. Thou shalt tolerate the tiresome relative (at least for a little while).

3. Thou shalt not play footsie with a distant cousin or thy cousin's spouse.

4. Sniping and carping about a reunion's lack of organization is an abomination.

5. Thou shalt orchestrate spontaneous praise unto the reunion organizer.

6. Thou shalt not talk about everything under the sun. Agree to disagree, and steer clear of such topics as the Vietnam War (now and forever), abortion rights, gay marriage, gun control, Waco.

7. Parents shall not use intimate details of their kids' lives as conversational fodder. (Boasts of children's accomplishments are acceptable, but parents shall be discreet in their phrasing and timing.)

8. Thou shalt not reveal devastating family secrets about thyself or others unless thou hast arranged therapeutic support systems.

9. Thou shalt not publicly criticize the bad manners or poor behavior of any child not thine own.

10. Thou shalt flatter thy kinfolk – falsely or not. All nieces tap dance divinely, all babies are beautiful, and all aunts look as wonderful as ever.

- From 'Family Reunion,' by Jennifer Crichton.

The history of family reunions

A reunion has always been the place where splintered families could reestablish the ties that bind. And two groups especially have helped create the reunion prototype.

In 18th-century Scotland, workers who had left their rural homes for city jobs would return to the countryside for a day or two to attend outdoor religious gatherings. Often, these holidays were the only vacations the newly urbanized workers would receive. Over time, these "camp meetings" became more focused on reconnecting with family.

When Scottish and Scots-Irish immigrants began settling in the United States, they continued this tradition, which became one root of the family reunion.

The abolition of slavery in the South also helped give birth to the reunion, says Ione Vargus, director of the Family Reunion Institute at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Slaves brought their heritage with them to the US, she says, including a strong commitment to one's tribe – one's relatives. This sense of family broadened to include people on the same plantation, especially since one's blood relations may have been sold elsewhere .

Then, after emancipation, says Professor Vargus, "you had people wanting to find each other. They wanted to find the men and women who had acted as surrogate parents to them on the plantation."

As more blacks migrated North, the reunion tradition began to take hold, as did the idea of inclusiveness. "African-Americans think of 'family' as aunts, uncles, cousins, and close friends," Vargus says, and that can be a positive influence in a world where the traditional nuclear family is far from being the norm.

Other influences on reunions include "town days" – when people returned to their hometown for a picnic on a specified day – church homecomings, and cemetery association days in the South, when families met once a year to maintain the grave sites of ancestors and, afterward, to picnic on the grounds.

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