If the idea of a family reunion conjures up visions of lukewarm potato salad and a horde of relatives you've never met, it's time to rethink what it means to connect with your extended family. After falling out of favor for several years, family reunions are once again becoming a popular way to discover ancestral roots and pass on a legacy of faith.
Concentrated time with those with whom you share a common past can inspire your whole family to think about the memories you want to leave behind. So before you dismiss the idea as just one more commitment jamming up your summer calendar, consider these four reasons to get the gang together.
1. Kids Can Connect to Something Bigger
Most of us live at least a short distance from our extended families. And while that can sometimes be a blessing, it can also create a sense of rootlessness in our lives, not to mention the lives of our children. According to Kenneth Phillips, a Christian psychiatrist in suburban Chicago, "The tendency for jobs to define the part of the country where people live subtly scissors family ties. Reunions are a means by which siblings who no longer live near each other (or their parents) can maintain regular contact and fertilize their family tree."
Steve Roskam's family is typical. He and his four siblings are scattered around the country. Steve, an Illinois physician, lives near one brother and their folks. He has one sister in Seattle and another one in rural Pennsylvania. Another brother lives in Indianapolis.
Roskam and his family have worked hard to remain close, despite the distance. "My parents did an outstanding job ingraining a sense of family in us," Steve recalls. "They passed on an astonishing legacy of what it takes to love each other and serve the Lord. Our family was very close growing up. But distance and time apart take their toll. Like many families, we were destined to grow apart unless we became proactive."
Eleven years ago Steve convinced the Roskam clan to gather for three days on the youngest sister's farm in Rogersville, Pennsylvania. They rented a nearby bed and breakfast, played with the kids, shared meals, and just hung out together. They had such a great time, they decided to do it again the next year. When the second gathering was also a smashing success, the Roskam "Highlife Reunion" became an annual tradition.
Even if your reunion involves only your parents, siblings, and their families, such a gathering can create bonds and memories that will help your children feel connected to something beyond your family unit. It will give them more opportunities to receive the kind of love and care that only family can offer. It will help them discover more about who they are and where they came from. If your family shares a common faith, it will give your children a sense of the depth of the beliefs you are working to instill in them.
2. It Will Be More Fun Than You Think
Naturally, even the most well-intentioned events can fall flat if you're not careful to avoid two common landmines that Phillips says can sabotage a reunion. The first is a lack of meaningful ways for teenagers and younger children to connect with older people. If the kids aren't happy, nobody is going to be happy.
Our family avoided that landmine because of good planning. Last summer my wife's folks celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Rather than opting for a traditional cake and punch reception at church, they expressed a desire to spend uninterrupted time with their four children, their mates, and their ten grandchildren. Like the Roskam clan, we are spread out in four different states. We decided to rent a vacation house in Seaside, Oregon (where Nana and Grandpa Steven honeymooned).
Although the grandchildren vary in age from a 22-year-old college student (who brought his girlfriend along) to a 16-month-old (who brought his blankie), there were endless opportunities for the kids to have a great time. During the mornings the kids were free to sleep in or go beachcombing or kite-flying with Grandpa. In the afternoons we got together to explore shops, tour a cheese factory, discover a mom-and-pop fish and chips shop, pose for a family portrait, or just sip soft drinks and talk about "when you kids were younger."
It helped that the older kids brought their bikes and Gameboys, but overall, the cousins had a blast spending time together and with the adults. Each night the older cousins played board games or watched videos. Nana read picture books to the younger ones while Grandpa led an all-family discussion of The Last Battle, the final installment of C. S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles (which we'd been asked to read prior to the reunion.). Because the grandchildren were given both structure and the freedom to make their own fun, the Steven family reunion resulted in the kids asking, "When are we going to do this again?"
The second landmine is unrealistic expectations. Amy Dickinson, the family columnist for Time magazine, recently attended her family's first reunion. She writes, "I remember pulling up to the reunion in a rental car, looking at the gathering clan and thinking, 'What are they doing here?' So, first a warning: if you attend a family reunion, there is every likelihood you will see your family there!"
Even the most close-knit families can unravel after a few days of too much fun and not enough sleep. If your family has some unresolved issues (and what family doesn't), expect a few uncomfortable moments over the course of the event. We set ourselves up for a real let down if we forget who will be at the reunion (complete with all their literal and figurative baggage).
As you plan your reunion, make space in the schedule for people to get away from one another if they wish. If things start getting tense, you can certainly pull yourself or your family out of the fray for a time.
3. Families Are Built on Memories
Dale Hicklin from Seattle loves being with uncles and aunts and all his cousins. Every four years the growing tribe (nearly 100 at last count) gathers to celebrate their shared history. What started out as a homecoming gathering to welcome his missionary parents from a four-year term in Africa became a ritual that glues the cousins and their children into a single family unit.
"Whether the get-together is in Washington, Michigan, Illinois, or Oregon, we make sure the weekend includes the traditional blueberry pancake cook-off, the Saturday night square dance, and the Hicklin Championship Trivia Competition (complete with engraved trophy)," Dale says. "The whole idea is to come together in one place for a long weekend of fun, games, eating, and remembering."
According to Reuniontips.com (a Web site for family reunion planners), "The primary driving force behind all reunions is our ability to remember the past. This remembrance is the basis of our stories—personal stories, family stories, and cultural stories (myths). Family reunions are nothing more than a vehicle for telling the family story."
Knowing that family story gives children something our generation may take for granted. Because so many of us grew up with grandparents nearby, we had the benefit of hearing their stories of life during the Depression or the sacrifices they had to make during wartime. Those stories enriched us in ways we may not even recognize. Yet our children, so many of whom see their grandparents only a week or two each year, miss out on a sense of belonging to the history of this country, not to mention the history of our faith.
4. You'll Build a Legacy of Faith
For Christian families, the story to be passed on involves more than just funny memories of weird Uncle Harold or the history of Grandpa Ned's farmhouse. Christian parents and grandparents have an obligation to bequeath to the next generations an understanding of what it means to be a child of God as well as a child of a given family unit.
Beginning in Old Testament times, the Lord commanded families to share stories of their history and God's faithfulness. Whether at the crossing of the Jordan when the river rocks were piled as an altar of remembrance or at the annual family festival called Passover, the Hebrews seized the opportunity of a gathered clan to eat, celebrate, and recall the past.
For the Hicklins, no family reunion would be complete without a worship service in which all the clan participates. "When we sing and hear God's Word and share testimonies of his faithfulness, we are reminded of the foundation each family member stands on," Dale observes. "It is our identity as members of the family of God that makes being a Hicklin worth celebrating."
If your parents are Christians, imagine the impact it would have on your children to hear about their grandparents' conversion experience or their struggles to hold on to their faith in times of trouble. If you are the only Christians in the group, imagine the impact it could have on the rest of the crew to see your family living out your faith in this intimate setting.
As families gather together, 10-year-old kids who love Jesus can warm the hearts of agnostic grandparents by spontaneously singing "Our God is an Awesome God" or innocently asking an unbelieving uncle who he is most looking forward to seeing in heaven. A great-uncle who has walked with Jesus for 60 years can "once upon a time" his way into the inquisitive minds of teenagers who've never been to church. And best of all, when Christian families come together to testify to the faithfulness of God, there is a sneak peak of what awaits them at the ultimate family reunion in heaven.
Greg Asimakoupoulos and his family live in Illinois.
Hot Tips for Cool Reunions
- Start small. Don't attempt to gather as many relatives as you can think of. Begin with your immediate family, grandparents, siblings, and their children. A week might be too long. Someone once observed, "Company, like fish, begins to smell after four days."
- Plan early. Reservations for campsites or vacation homes need to be made months (if not a year) in advance.
- Neutral locations are best. It evens out the playing field. The Roskams eventually ended up making reservations at the same Christian family camp in Michigan each year. There are worship times and activities for differing age groups, meals are prepared (and cleaned up) by the staff, and free time can be spent as an extended family.
- Make it a kid-friendly reunion. Bring bikes, skates, and scooters as well as board games, craft supplies, Gameboys, CD players, and lots of snacks.
- Involve as many people as you can in the planning and implementation. As in anything else, if people feel a sense of ownership they will contribute more enthusiastically.
- Record the time together with Camcorders, still cameras, and tape recorders. Make sure to record interviews with grandparents.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.
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Summer 2002, Vol. 14, No. 3, Page 48