Family reunions worth going to
Why is it that when I say the words "family reunion," so many people roll their eyes?
They love their family; it's the reunion that they hate.
Sometimes what bothers people is simply the size of the affair. Not everybody thrives in a throng. Too often, crowd management becomes the primary activity.
It can feel good to see four or five generations of the same family gathered together in one place. But there aren't many things that a group of fifty or thirty or even twenty can do together.
Some people can't abide feeling overscheduled by other people; others are quickly exhausted by having to do far more work than usual, and in an unfamiliar place.
There are conflicts of child-rearing style -- if you are raising free-range children, you're probably oblivious to how much time the prevent-any-imaginable-disaster parents are spending trying to keep your kids from, as they see it, getting killed.
But let's say you've solved all these problems. You don't try to have more than one serve-everybody-at-once meal during the whole reunion. There's lots of free time, especially for young cousins to play freely and get to know each other.
What do you actually do at your family reunion?
It's a vacation, right? So you want to get together and have fun.
Not every family or subfamily has the same idea of what "fun" is. Did your reunion take account of what your family enjoys?
For some families, a reunion in a big cabin in the woods or a house at the beach or at Grandpa's and Grandma's house is perfect. "Plenty of things to do." "Lots of different activities." "Full of traditions and memories."
But for some people, the same places might be horrible.
Hiking? Wood ticks. No open level ground for running. Hate getting lost. Too hot. Too cold.
Swimming? Can't swim. Hate swimsuits. Loathe washing endless sand off of bodies and out of clothes.
Amusement park? Oh, great, I get to pay money for three minutes of nausea punctuated by moments of sheer terror -- and then stand in line to do it again.
Shopping? Don't care about it. Can't afford it. Think the rest of the family has appalling taste. Hate the way they criticize my taste. Can shop at home.
Even activities you regular enjoy at home can be disastrous at a reunion.
Board games? Great if you don't have too many people, and if everybody is equally serious (or not) about the rules.
DVDs? Nothing can wreck a reunion faster than one family wanting to watch a favorite movie or TV show that another family disapproves of.
Let me tell you about the Jensens. We got to know them when we first moved to Greensboro more than twenty-five years ago. We've seen all four of the daughters grow up, go to school, get married, and come home for visits.
There was plenty of running around on their huge lawn when the kids were little. But when they have their family reunions, they do the most remarkable thing -- which suits their family perfectly: the Jensen Family Symposium.
You see, these are people who actually enjoy learning things. Even more than water-skiing or bungee-jumping or softball or board games -- though none of these activities are prohibited.
The whole reunion is centered around each adult preparing a class to present to everyone else.
They've been doing this for years. Here are some of the presentations, mostly from this past summer:
Jenny Rebecca taught "Container Gardening: A Little Bit of Eden on Your Front Porch." Appropriate for young families in apartments or starter homes.
Kathryn taught "You Are What You Eat: Why Go Organic."
James offered "Boy Scouts vs. Bull Riders," a double topic, which first explained the Church's new Duty to God program and then explained rodeos -- the terms, the events, the judging. Then whoever wanted to went to a nearby rodeo.
Grandpa, who had recently escorted a tour group of LDS singers, offered "Accidental Impresario: Adventures with Performers in China."
Grandma gave a presentation on family traditions; Ken talked about the book Outliers; Shannon led a discussion on places to hold future family reunions, and how to finance them.
Ben, a doctor who works with leukemia patients, offered a session called "the First Week of Leukemia," taking everyone through what happens with a child and their family when the disease is first diagnosed.
Perhaps the strangest title was "Heafed to the Fell: Heardwick Sheep on the High Fell Farms of the British Lake Country." This presentation grew out of Emily's talk about Beatrix Potter the year before. This year she told about herds of sheep that always return to the place where they were weaned -- so you can't sell the herds away from the land, or the land without the herds.
Some of the topics are fascinating for the young children; some are only for the adults and the older kids.
Bedtimes at the reunion have their own tradition. Titles of true-life bedtime stories are taped to the wall going up the stairs. The kids get to choose one or two a night, and the appropriate older person tells the chosen story.
This year's stories were:
The Hungry Chipmunk
Aunt Jenny and the Angry Bees
Aunt Emily and a Horse Named Buck
The Cat and the Bat
A Possum in My House
Grandpa Slugs a Pickpocket Gypsy
Jenny Rebecca's True Love Box
As the children get older, they'll also have their chances to tell stories or offer presentation in the adult part of the symposium.
My point is not that this is the "right way" to hold a reunion, but rather that the Jensen's have found their way.
If you find yourself dreading family reunions, why not give some thought -- and discussion time -- to coming up with new activities, or finding a new balance of activities, that you might enjoy better?
If you want to change your reunions, remember one rule, please: It's easy to reject, hard to invent.
So at the family reunion brainstorming session, words and phrases like "No way" or "not a chance" or "horrible" or "are you insane?" are absolutely forbidden. You just come up with ideas, including crazy ones. Take notes, think about them. Put them up where everyone can be reminded of them during the whole reunion.
Only at the end of the reunion do you start voting about ideas to try for next year.
Maybe, if you're inventive enough, you can become a family that says "reunion" without an eye-roll!
Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card
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