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Family Ties

6 ways to stay close through the years and across the miles
Credit: Eyewire

I lie in bed listening to the whispers from the room next door. A torrent of giggles comes rushing down the hall, and I glance at the clock. Twelve forty-five! Those irksome insomniacs next door are disturbing my slumber. But I smile. You see, one of my tormentors is my 11-year-old daughter, and her rowdy accomplice is her aunt, my sister. The fact they're so obviously enjoying each other's company warms my heart. Family always does.

Family. God created it as a built-in support system. Until recent years, families lived together in tight-knit groups, trusting and relying on each other every day. But nowadays it isn't uncommon for a family to span the country or even the globe. It seems today's society has tried to diminish the importance of family. Deep down, though, we all need that connection, that feeling of security and belonging. But with extended family so scattered and our lives so busy, how can we bring back the feelings that come from being part of a close-knit clan? Here are a few ideas that might help keep your family circle tight.

1. An "Extended" Family Album

We've all heard the old adage, "Out of sight, out of mind!" How true this can be when it comes to far-flung family members! My children haven't had much exposure to my husband's extended family, so I wasn't surprised by the reaction I received from my seven-year-old when my spouse's sister came for a visit. My daughter looked at me suspiciously and said, "I didn't know I had an Aunt Janet. Do I have any other aunts I don't know about?" After I assured her there were no more mysterious relatives lurking anywhere, I seized the opportunity to give her a thorough rundown of her paternal family tree.

If I wanted my daughter to know all the aunts, uncles, and cousins my husband and I hold dear, I needed to get busy, and fast!

The exchange opened my eyes: If I wanted my daughter to know all the aunts, uncles, and cousins my husband and I hold dear, I needed to get busy, and fast! So I grabbed as many family photos as I could find, placed them in an album, and identified each person by name and relation (e.g. Mary Smith, second cousin). Not only did it acquaint my children with some rarely seen faces, it also provided them with a sense of belonging to a larger unit.

2. The Digital Connection

Of course, keeping in touch in a "geographically challenged" family involves more than creating a photo album. The Internet provides several great ways to stay connected across the miles. My friend Michele set up her own website for her across-the-country crew. She included pictures of her girls, news from her home, and even a guest book so she could see who had visited the site and forward them a personal note.

"My mom looks at it a lot to see the pictures of the kids," Michele says. "We have relatives in Seattle, Denver, Birmingham ... they can watch my children grow!"

If you want to set up a website, but feel too "computer illiterate" (I can sympathize), try going to www.myfamily.com. This site makes the task quick and easy. It allows you to include pictures, video, and even voice clips. Also, you can choose to be reminded by e-mail of important family dates so you'll never miss another birthday or anniversary. And the best part about this website—it's free!

3. Round Robin Letters

Several years ago, when my sisters and I lived in separate states, we felt disconnected. Having always been close, we wanted to know more about what was going on in each other's daily life, so we initiated a "round robin" letter. One sister wrote about what was happening in her household, then mailed her note to me. I added my own letter, put it with hers, and sent them both off to my other sister. She, in turn, included a letter and sent the whole bunch back to the first sister. After the first sister replaced her original note with an update, she sent the letters off for a new round. The round robin letters helped us to feel in touch again, even though we seldom saw each other during that time.

Round robin letters can take on a new twist these days: "Techno-tribes" can stay in touch using e-mail. Simply send copies of your message to the whole clan. You also can share family photos, even if you don't have a digital camera or scanner. Just have your pictures put on a disk when you take them to be developed (most photofinishing labs offer this service).

4. Book It!

Probably the best way to keep strong family ties is to spend time together. And what better way to do this than the tried-and-true family reunion? Planning a reunion can be daunting and, subsequently, some never get off the ground. But remember, a reunion can be as complex or simple as the family chooses to make it. Some families hold huge "blow-out" reunions, hosting a hundred or more distant relatives. Planning such a shindig is a worthy though formidable endeavor that offers the reward of realizing a rich family history as you trace your relation with each guest (well, as many as you have time for!).

For the faint-of-heart, a smaller, less hectic reunion can be just as rewarding. My family has been having low-key gatherings for years. My aunt donates the burgers and hotdogs, and everyone else brings a side dish and drinks. We ooh and aah over how much the kids have changed and marvel over how little the rest of us have! At the end of the day, we go home hot and tired, but renewed by the unseen connection we share.

Not only can you choose how elaborate to make your reunion, you can even choose its length: from a few hours, to a weekend, to a whole week! My friend Kim takes a yearly reunion vacation with her extended family. They all converge on the same condo and spend a week together.

"We enjoy the time away from the distractions of home and create wonderful memories and bonds that will last a lifetime," she says. "Living with each other that one week of the year helps us get to know each other more intimately."

No matter what size reunion you choose to organize, help is available. There are some great tips at www.family-reunion.com to help your reunion go smoothly from the planning stages to the clean-up detail. Be sure, however, to begin your organizing and notify the guests far in advance of your target date. Most people need time to make plans and won't be able to attend if you let them know the week before! If you plan to make it an annual event, holding it at the same time each year makes scheduling easier for everyone.

5. The Cousin Camp Concept

So you think spending a week with your family sounds great, but the adults can't seem to synchronize time off? Have no fear—Cousin Camp is here!

Cousin Camp is the latest thing for acquainting the kid kinfolk. As adults scatter themselves and their families, faraway cousins might see each other only during visits to their grandparents' home, which are often on hectic holidays. To give the kids more opportunities to get to know each other, many grandparents now are hosting Cousin Camps. Christian author and speaker Esther Burroughs has been hosting a Cousin Camp (she calls it "Nana's Summer Camp") for her five grandchildren since 1998 and has included a chapter full of helpful tips in her book, Treasures of a Grandmother's Heart. She and her husband, Bob, plan lots of fun crafts and field trips, but they also take this opportunity to pass on their Christian convictions. Daily Bible stories help to plant and cultivate the seeds of faith in even the youngest of their brood. In her book, Esther writes, "It's never too late to begin a summer camp ... and it can be as simple or elaborate as you wish. Just do it!"

6. And Most Importantly...

Finally, when cultivating connections with your kinfolk, don't check your Christianity at the door. Chances are there's a relative—whether a parent, sibling, or third cousin twice-removed—who needs to know Jesus Christ as her personal Savior. Keeping in touch with these family members provides you an opportunity to witness to them with words and actions. And what could be better than knowing your efforts to stay connected with your earthly family actually brought them into the heavenly family of God!

Beverly Dillard, a freelance writer, lives with her family in Georgia.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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