PEOPLE are rediscovering their families, and family reunions are enjoying a comeback. Folks these days are making the effort, setting aside the time, traveling the distances, and proving the point that although family members may be out of sight, they are most certainly not out of mind.
Reunions pin down good intentions about visiting far-flung relatives, and help to meet the challenge of maintaining or refreshing long-distance relationships.
Clan gatherings have been encouraged by Better Homes and Gardens for three years now as a means of encouraging family unity and keeping the reunion tradition alive.
In 1986 the magazine even persuaded President Reagan to sign a proclamation, declaring the first weekend in August (Aug. 5 to 7 this year) as ``National Family Reunion Weekend.''
The President's sentiments included these words: ``Family reunions bridge generations and remind us of our roots. I encourage all families to use the family reunion to tap these roots again and to renew their pledge of love and concern for each other.''
In a Better Homes and Gardens Family Network survey, more than 70 percent of respondents said they had attended at least one reunion, and, on average, reported having gone to nearly four. The survey also revealed that one-third of respondents do hold, or plan to hold, reunions on a regular basis.
Seventy percent said that family members had become increasingly important to them over the last five years and that they wished they could spend more time with them. Most said they took to the idea of a family reunion because they just wanted to be together and to ``rekindle ties and meet new relatives.'' Many indicated they wanted to learn more about their family heritage, and see photographs and hear stories of their ancestors.
An average of 39 family members attended the last reunion attended by those surveyed. One-third of the events were held outdoors in a park or garden, and more than a quarter were held in residences. About a tenth were in halls, restaurants, country clubs, or hotels.
Although nearly three-quarters of those responding said they enjoyed themselves very much at reunions, about 3 percent said they didn't enjoy themselves much.
Brooks Rogers, a New York career woman, along with a brother and sister, went down South last year to attend their first family reunion. They had all read the family history that had been put together in a booklet by a self-appointed family historian, and were curious to meet the people, many of whom were strangers to them.
``We were welcomed with open arms and in 103-degree heat began a protracted experience of responding to relatives who spun us tales of family history and insisted we visit the family cemetery. At the home of an aunt we looked at quilts and were taken through old hope chests, portrait albums, and letters. We left heavy with food, heat, and history - but glad we had gone.''
THE ties that bind are not always sanguine, nor do all reunions drip with sentiment and nostalgia.
Some months ago, Jane E. Brody warned in her New York Times column that some family reunions are more to be endured and survived than enjoyed. They don't always represent times of caring and sharing, she wrote. But she declared creativity and humor to be powerful weapons for dealing with ``reunionitis.''
Marlys Watters Hodge, who now lives in California, was absolutely thrilled with the family reunion she attended in Kansas last summer.
``I hadn't been to that small town I knew so well as a child for almost 20 years,'' she recalls. ``Yet when that sweet cousin came rushing out of her house and threw her arms around me and exclaimed, `Oh, Marlys! How wonderful!,' I was deeply moved. Although I had thought about those cousins for years and loved them, it surprised me that they were as thrilled to see me as I was to see them.''
Ms. Hodge drove past what was left of her grandparents' old house and under the trestle bridge where she and her cousins had played as children. She was proudly shown a relative's backyard garden, and taken by the little church where she sang at weddings when she was 18. ``Yes,'' she admits, ``I felt childlike again.
``But I also felt complete and was even somehow cleansed. My visit seemed like a continuation of so many good things in my life. Twenty-five relatives came bearing covered dishes one day, and those that couldn't come sent something. I was overcome. It all meant a lot to me.''
Nancy Neale of Carefree, Ariz., said it was her mother, back in Cleveland, who began the family's annual reunion tradition some years back. Now, the brothers and sisters carry it on, getting together for three days each year to share their experiences.
``Sometimes we've rented a cottage,'' says Ms. Neale, ``or gone to a home, or to a resort. One year we all enrolled for a week at a college's summer session and went to classes between visits. We usually go where there is tennis and golf. If meal preparation is involved, we all take turns cooking.''
Mary Stutt, another Neale sibling, declares, ``I do believe the reunions are most successful when not programmed way ahead, and when they involve fewer numbers. It's most ideal for visiting with each family member if we can all fit into one house or at least one place.''
As for how to plan a family reunion, Better Homes and Gardens gives the following tips:
Determine your list of family members to be invited.
Pick the date that would be most suitable for the majority, after asking relatives their preference.
Choose a site, such as a home, a national park or campground, a resort, a country club, or someone's backyard.
Once you have picked a site, see to it that all the out-of-town guests have a place to stay. Motels and hotels sometimes offer discount rates to larger groups.
Delegate chores. Form committees to handle the invitations, entertainment, finances, lodging arrangements, etc. As for food coordination, the favorite scenario seems to be for various family members to bring potluck dishes. Try to involve as many people as possible.
Once all the details are set, get invitations out early. Six months ahead of time is ideal.
Plan a few special activities to get everyone together to have some fun.
Plan at least one event with familywide appeal such as screening of old family photos and movies, or unveiling the family tree. But don't overplan, because people want plenty of time for reminiscing and catching up.