July 4 is all about family reunions and storytelling

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If you are not attending a family picnic on July 4, you run the risk of being labeled un-American. For some of us, the holiday is a perfect time to attend or organize a family reunion.

A chapter of my book, “Letters from Home: Adventures with Mad Mother, Lemonade Man and the Kid,” (the book launch is set for Aug. 7) contains an entire chapter devoted to the need for all of us to record our family stories before it’s too late. The following is excerpted from two columns in the book and documents some of my experiences with summer family reunions.

A column writer much wiser and wittier than I once wrote that we’re losing our collective culture because we don’t hand down our family stories anymore. That may be true for some Americans, but not for anyone who’s ever attended a family reunion. I went to another one in Topeka Sunday and was privileged to hear some of those family sagas.

The relatives gathered around a huge hay wagon (the modern equivalent of a campfire?) that had been pulled inside a machinery shed out of the rain on the old Garrett homeplace. The wagon was spread with a plastic tarp and covered with food of every description. While the kids played in a paddle boat and fished on the farm pond, the adults stuffed their faces and looked at photo albums.

For most young adults, the extended family is never too important when we are busy raising our own kids and making our marks on the world. But something happens in mid-life. All of a sudden, family trees and roots take on new importance. The family reunion brings this together in a social setting that can leave you alternately dazed and elated.

How do you respond to the cousin who reveals that you used to walk in your sleep or to the uncle who wants you to take off your glasses so he can see your dad’s eyes? Do you eat Aunt Neva’s chocolate chip cookie bars and risk offending Aunt Gene, who baked the lemon cake? (The correct response is to take a sample of each dessert.)

How long can you look at photos of second and third cousins you didn’t know existed without yawning at least once? What do you say when three different aunts brag about the family having a helicopter pilot, a newspaper publisher, an engineer, a vet and a builder but no attorney and give you an accusing look for having split up with the latter? When an aunt makes an extremely prejudiced remark that you find highly offensive, do you ignore it, pretending it wasn’t spoken, or do you have the courage of your convictions?

At this reunion I was surprised to learn that my grandfather was in World War I, played a mean trombone and rode a fancy motorcycle. The aunts circulated a letter he’d written from a foxhole in France. It could have been a propaganda piece for the War Department, full of praise for “our boys” and contempt for those who didn’t serve their country. Back home on the farm he soon became a slave driver to his nine children, getting them up at 4 a.m. to do chores, especially when they’d sneaked out for dates the previous night.

Some of the family photos passed around at the reunion looked like they were taken straight from a Grapes of Wrath scene. Poverty and hardship were written all over the faces. An early 1950s photo caught my attention. It was one of the extended family I’d never seen. I was in it, looking up at my parents and baby brother. My mother looked like a model and my dad like a handsome gangster.

Daddy was a family favorite, partly because of his untimely death in 1954 and partly because of his perpetually cheerful outlook on life. Uncle Jerry, the youngest boy, idolized him and followed him around the farm like a faithful pup. One day they went into town together and brought back two kegs of nails for a farm project. The nails bounced off the truck and spilled all over the road.  Uncle Jerry picked up every single nail, but only because my dad had strategically placed coins among the scattered nails.

Later I wondered why I didn’t repeat those family stories to my own son on the spot, or at least on our drive home. He had been too busy with kid things, like finding snake skins and goose eggs, to get to know his great aunts and uncles and to listen to the stories. I guess his day will come, like mine did. I just hope his generation learns to sit still long enough to absorb the family culture. Maybe someone will figure out a way to put family history on a Super Nintendo game.

Family reunions remind us that we are part of something bigger . . .something with history and traditions and stories that will be passed along for another generation after my son’s. They are rich social events and brief encounters with wonderful people we don’t have to live with every day. They are replete with smiles and hugs and promises to write and get together again soon–promises that we really hope to keep.

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