Their roots grow deeply every year
How to make sure a far-flung family stays connected? A reunion builds memories.
After their grandmother's funeral in 1999, my husband and his cousins stood outside the church and reminisced about their childhood escapades. I couldn't identify with many of the stories that kept them laughing – for example, the time a home hair-coloring kit turned her hair blue – but when the conversation turned to her Christmas celebrations, I smiled in remembrance. For 11 years, I had the privilege of sitting at her holiday table.
We crowded into Huldah's home because she was the matriarch, mother to three and grandmother to nine. We sat on folding chairs positioned around card tables and discreetly wiped sweat from our foreheads.
In addition to turkey, stuffing, and red Jell-O, the annual gathering included her Norwegian specialty, lefse, a pastry made from potatoes and flour, rolled into thin pancakes, and fried on a special griddle. Huldah served them with butter and sugar rolled up inside.
While we passed the plate of delicacies around the table, she always explained how the dough's consistency had affected the finished product. If the dough was too sticky, or too dry, rolling it into "thin and pretty" pancakes was difficult. She always said lefse should "look like lace." But we asked for second, third, and fourth helpings, no matter what it looked like.
Not every cousin enjoys lefse to the extent that I do, but, standing on the church steps that November afternoon, we all recognized the love it represented.
Then one of the cousins asked, "When will we see you guys again? I doubt we'll keep coming at Christmas now that Huldah's gone."
Good question. Fourteen years separated the oldest cousin from the youngest. Some were busy with college; others were starting jobs, getting married, or starting a family. Although they shared many childhood memories, they were too old to create new ones through games of hide-and-seek and too young to have many adult experiences in common. Plus, they lived in three different states.
Huldah's passing could easily have turned family members into distant relatives.
But a few months later, my husband's parents and his aunts and uncles started their mantra: "You have to get together, so you can get to know one another as adults. Otherwise, you'll never be part of each other's lives."
It took a couple of years, but, thanks partly to the older generation's organization and partly to their pressure, the Converse Reunion was born – and we've been reuniting with my husband's cousins and their families for the past six years.
Last year, we were eight families – three generations, 30 relatives (plus one on the way), ranging from 2 months to 65 years.
At the first get-together, the cousins rehashed details of their youth. For many of the stories, we in-laws could only listen and ask questions. But in subsequent years, childhood tales have given way to conversations that both cousins and spouses could appreciate. The present is mixed with the past.
Our age differences no longer matter. Just as the older generation predicted, we've gotten to know one another, and we've learned that we like each other.
For years, we united simply because we were Huldah's children and grandchildren (or had married one of them). But now we're connected by more than blood. We reunite because we choose to. We understand that it isn't the food that brings us to the table, it's the people sitting around that table.
And the lefse? It's no longer a staple of our holiday meal, but a gift my sister–in-law occasionally makes for her father.
Every year, as I mark our family's commitments on the calendar, I know we could easily detour around the mid-August gathering and say we're too busy to make the trip from our home in Iowa to the Minnesota lake lodge we rent.
But like Huldah's lefse dough, consistency is the key. And the more deliberate our efforts, the better the results.
To be honest, it's not my husband's generation that reaps the most benefit from our get-togethers. It's the current third generation – the oldest of whom is 15. They're surrounded, embraced, and celebrated by a group of adults who care about who they are and who they're becoming.
A new generation of silly moments and remembrances is emerging, and in the process, the faces on the Christmas card photos come alive.
For our children, those connections – so far – include Brian and Wayne, who fried up the sunfish they caught; Pete and Sam, who drove the boat when they learned to water-ski; and Angie, who supervised their late-night swim in the lake.
I'm sure the final moments of our upcoming Converse Reunion will be no different from last year's final moments:
Amid last-minute searches for beach towels and flip-flops, those with cameras will be organizing group shots of the girls, the boys, the families, and the cousins.
The kids will race for one last look at the lake. The teenagers will rock back and forth unsteadily, unsure whether to shake hands with the adults or offer an awkward hug, but intent on scrambling away from the aunt who likes to give kisses.
My husband will set our camera on its tripod. He'll organize the group, squint through the viewfinder, and instruct us to squeeze together. He'll say, "Just one more" several times, and we'll laugh as he hurries to join us before the camera snaps the shot.
The moments will be captured on film, but the memories will be imprinted on our hearts.