Family Reunions - Remembrance Of A Shared Past

IT'S that time of year again in the Midwest. The corn is as high as the proverbial elephant's eye. Queen Anne's lace carpets the roadside in white under a sky that stretches forever. Fireflies blink a cheery greeting at dusk, and crickets chirp a warning that summer is on the wane.

It is a season of corn boils and ethnic festivals, of county fairs and state fairs - all celebrating, in one way or another, the bounty of the land and the hard work of those who earn their living from the rich black soil.

For some of us who grew up here but have spent our adult lives elsewhere, this is the season that turns us into homing pigeons, pulling us back, however briefly, for family reunions. We want to reconnect with other scattered relatives and give our offspring a view of the heartland in all its summertime splendor.

And so it is that seven of us assemble for a mini family reunion. We come from Los Angeles, Boston, Minneapolis, and Peoria to celebrate my parents' golden-plus-six anniversary and to catch up on news and activities.

Yet what begins as a routine gathering of the clan unexpectedly turns into a weekend exploration of family history. For two days we pore over old photo albums, the kind with black pages and formal black-and-white pictures held in place with corner mounts. As we study photos, questions of ''Who's that?'' and ''Where was this?'' prompt stories both serious and funny.

My teenage niece and twentysomething daughter listen with amazement as my mother describes the 10-day journey she made as a girl when her family moved from Wisconsin to Florida in 1925, camping all the way. They listen with equal interest to my father's accounts of working his way through college during the depression. Hardships are recounted without bitterness. ''We didn't have much money, but we had a good time,'' my mother says, describing the support of a close-knit extended family.

My father also shares, for the first time, his grandfather's autobiography - 19 pages chronicling the long life of a man who began as a farmer and achieved a degree of success as a lecturer on agriculture and a member of the board of regents at the University of Wisconsin.

He begins his account by writing, ''Few of us have any clear, transmitted impression of our great-grandparents; some of us could not describe our grandparents. This statement being so self-evident as it relates to my immediate family and relatives, it has occurred to me to record such facts relative to my ancestors as I have been able to secure from my parents, my Eastern relatives, and published records.''

The richness of his writing, the insight it offers into his character, and the portrait it paints of a way of life long vanished make me want to give every adult family member an assignment: Add your autobiography to this one.

Preserving family history for future generations hardly ranks as an exercise in nostalgia. For those of us who have reared our children far from the place where we grew up, weekends like this - the Midwestern setting, the old photos, the family lore - are a way of telling them: This is my heritage, and it's also yours.

Back home in Los Angeles, my daughter sums up her reunion impressions by saying, ''Seeing these pictures and hearing these stories makes you grateful for our modern life. But in a way, it makes you long for simpler times. These people didn't have so many external temptations tearing them apart. We have TV and all these high-power careers distracting us from recognizing what's important - spending time with family.''

Those distractions are not likely to diminish. All the more reason to gather on a summer weekend to celebrate the family in a circle of embraces. The old homestead may exist only in sepia photographs, but the memory of it - and of the hard-working ancestors who inhabited it - deserves to live on in the hearts of even the most sophisticated and far-flung descendants.


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