Family Reunion

Summer days are fleeting and precious. How we revel in time to dip our feet in cool waters, inhale the matchless smell of freshly cut grass, watch and marvel at the power of an afternoon thunderstorm. Yet these lazy days so quickly fill with the busy schedules of the season. We chase baseball tournaments, family vacations, camps, church activities. All are worthy pursuits but borrowers, too, from the limited moments available between the first sunrises of June and the lingering sunsets of August. This summer we would do well to listen to the admonition of Scripture. The writer of Hebrews tells us not to give up the habit of meeting together, that there are joys in fellowship that cannot be found anywhere else. The families on the following pages have committed to meet together each summer. They share food, friendship, games and stories. They meet at homes, on family farms, around tables and campfires, all with the aim of knowing each other well and building memories that outlast their time together. Summer days are fleeting and precious. But when we savor them with family, for years afterward the sweetness remains.

Design your event with a strong color theme, practical tableware, well-placed serving stations and adequate seating. Simple ideas for outdoors are best: old sap buckets painted white or red filled with flowers (place rocks in the bottom to keep them from blowing over in the wind); disposable table service with menu tags tied with coordinating ribbon; and paper flags attached to straws to mark drinks. Gingham, a timeless favorite for picnics, identifies the celebration area with bold color. Make table runners from yard goods using pinking sheers to finish the edges.

Delicious homemade desserts and fresh-picked berries are welcomed guests at any picnic. Nonrefrigerated foods can remain out for a few hours, so plan a separate table to display them with drama. An umbrella keeps food shaded and protected, but you may want a few cake covers handy for foods that need more coverage; paper goods and utensils are kept tidy in a vintage basket.

Secret Reunion Success

Born to an Indiana farm family of seven children, “Uncle Bob” Wolfe learned the importance of close family relationships early in life. As his family grew and scattered across the country, planning time together each year became essential. “We wanted to get together to understand our background and pass our values forward,” Uncle Bob says. His family will hold their 42nd reunion this Labor Day weekend, and out of their experience, Uncle Bob has authored Secrets of Successful Family Reunions to help other families enjoy the success of an ongoing, vibrant reunion. He offers this advice:

1. Begin the buzz. For those starting from scratch, identify the family “thought leaders.” These individuals, because of job experience, personality type or skills, hold particular influence in the family. United on a planning team, they will be able to generate interest in the reunion and offer the momentum to get it started.

2. Mark your calendar. Choose a celebratory milestone to bring the family together. A grandparents’ wedding anniversary, an 80th birthday, a high school reunion or a town anniversary can provide a built-in reason to gather.

3. Capture oldest to youngest. Plan activities everyone will enjoy. Uncle Bob’s family holds an afternoon of games during their weekend retreat, featuring a series of relay events for all ages. He also recommends activities such as stilt walking or puzzles to interest a variety of age groups.

4. Share the wealth. Rotate responsibilities and keep the reunion plans simple. Designate a host family each year. This family organizes the schedule, the meeting space and perhaps a theme for the time together. Costs must be shared evenly among all participants. You can make your event as elaborate or as simple as you like. A state park, family farm or church camp at the end of its season provides an excellent location.

5. Pull in the next generation. Cultivate interest among your teens. “Without this,” says Uncle Bob, “your reunion will die. Teenagers need activities, challenge and recognition in order to pull them into the family fabric.” One way is to encourage conversations among generations. The teens in Uncle Bob’s family make photo memory books, recording a family story told by an older member and capturing valuable family memories that can be shared for years to come. Uncle Bob remembers one such story told to him at a reunion. “My great-grandfather moved 200 miles in a covered wagon from Kentucky to Indiana because he wanted to raise his family in a state that didn’t support slavery,” he says. “A reunion offers the chance to hear these family stories, build relationships, respect older generations and find out how we got to be who we are.”

Making Memories

Mark the day with take-home boxes of Grandma’s cookies, a CD of stories told by family members and plenty of photo opportunities where the generations mingle and play together.

Bright colored boxes full of Grandmother’s prized cookies are a sure family favorite. Design your own custom-colored boxes using a simple hand-crank die-cut machine at a local scrapbooking store. Make striped bands to wrap around the box and card-stock labels using a computer and printer. Line the boxes with parchment paper and include a copy of Grandma’s recipe inside.

Creating a Children’s Story Hour CD takes advance planning. Ask family members to record themselves reading a favorite children’s story or two and make a collection on a CD. (For annual events, these can be taped live at the picnic and handed out the following year.) Make sure everyone gets a copy. Tin CD cases and labels printed using a home computer make this a lifetime keepsake.

Photo opportunities are a must at family gatherings. Plan events and activities that invite picture taking: Grandpa handing out watermelon to the grandkids, a game of croquet or a sack race.

Cottage By the Lake

Sunlight tiptoes across the lawn, the soft down of morning dew reflecting in a thousand pinpoints of light. Lazy waves lick the sand beach and murmur quiet invitations for a sunrise swim. Down at the end of the dock, a small boy and his cousin check their lines for the day’s first catch, hair rumpled from deep and well-earned sleep. They wrinkle their noses at the worms and their giggles carry across the water. They cast, set down their poles and then race down the dock’s whitewashed planks, stomachs growling, noses drawn to the smell of cinnamon rolls and coffee escaping from the screened-in porch of the cottage.

It’s the first morning of the James family reunion.

For one week each summer, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins abandon their work and responsibilities in the homes they inhabit all over the country and gather for time together as a family.

Howard and Wilma James raised their five children in a small Midwest town. The couple, he a World War II veteran and painter and she a homemaker, taught their son and four daughters to love God and love others. “Like our family reunions at the lake, our faith experience has been an intergenerational one,” son Randy says. “Our parents have played such an important part in that legacy.”

This summer will mark the 17th reunion at the James’s lake home, a space that has witnessed and absorbed many changes in the family since it was purchased in 1993. Grandkids are now grown with families of their own, yet they all make it a priority to return each year. Randy explains, “Even though we’re all busy in our daily lives, we come to the lake and rally around the campfire together. It’s a tremendous blessing—one that our kids are now introducing to their children.”

As the five James children grew up and settled in faraway locales, the concerted effort to meet at the lake each summer reaped precious benefits for the family. The cost, time and care involved in planning and attending the reunion paled in comparison to the
relationships it solidified.

Jana Smolenski, the youngest of the five siblings, makes the trek of 1700 miles each year from California with her husband, Chris, and their three children. “I do ask myself what I’ve done when I’m driving through the middle of Nebraska with three wild kids, a cranky husband, 112-degree heat, and the same CD blaring for the fourteenth time,” she says with a laugh. “But when we step out of the car to hugs from family members, I remember why we endure it.”

Reunion days are filled to the brim with laughter, food and healthy competition. Children and adults pair up for gunnysack races down the hill to the beach. A field behind the cottage serves as a makeshift baseball diamond, perfect for the annual all-family game. A golf tournament, fishing contest and charcoal drawing contest top the list of favorite activities. Kids wait to see who throws the most impressive pot on the pottery wheel and whose ingenuity shines brightest during the yearly photo scavenger hunt. “We’ve had relays with kayaks, wave runners and paddleboats,” Randy says. “I remember jumping into the lake once during a downpour for a scavenger hunt—but the craziness is always worth it. In the end, it’s all about the memories we create.”

The reunion is structured so that every age group can make the most out of their time together. Young children connect with grandparents over a game of horseshoes on the beach. Aunts join daughters and granddaughters to soak up some sun on the dock, dipping their toes in the cool water and indulging in uninterrupted conversation.

Sand castles dot the beach, changing with the tide and a week’s worth of tinkering. Young cousins call to each other, asking who’d like to take a boat ride to the ice cream shop across the bay. “Everyone has their own favorite part of the tradition,” Randy says.

The week always concludes with Sunday service at a favorite local church. “I love going to church together with this mass of people that I love,” says eldest sister, Connie Ripley. “Children and parents and grandparents from all over the country worshipping together after so many fun-packed days. Sometimes I sit next to the men in the group and feel their strength. These incredibly loving, God-fearing men have set examples for me and my children in how to love and lead their families, and our reunions each year have served as a way to connect with that gift.”

Each year brings something new. The paint color on the cottage changes from white to blue, geraniums and begonias mix with impatiens and hostas. New babies are born, and with each addition to the family, the James women come together to host yet another baby shower. Those same babies soon grow into bright-eyed children, eager to choose their favorite toppings from the traditional late-night s’mores bar. One bachelor nephew is consistently teased about prospective girlfriends until he admits there’s no one—no one, at least, that he’d bring to the lake. “When you come to the reunion, you feel this sense of belonging and acceptance,” Randy says. “We’re here to make memories. Just come as you are.”