July 25, 2008

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

The family reunion as a learning experience

Cynthia DewesSocial scientists, religious leaders and even politicians love to extol the importance of families.

This seems to be a time when family has come to mean almost any arrangement of people living together, but family still is central to a wholesome personal and community life. As the family goes, so goes society.

That is because each individual family is a microcosm of the human family, a small soap opera that reflects the larger soap opera that is the human condition.

Even in tiny families, such as those of the Chinese, this process is at work. As family members, we can’t help but study life and learn how to live it. Or not.

The annual family reunion offers a crash course in this study. The intricacies of relationship, the multitude of personal backgrounds and the overall feeling of a loving bond make this occasion something special.

We may come away from it feeling pleasantly affirmed, better informed about our personal history and, sometimes, edified or amused that we are related by blood to some of these characters.

Large families, of which I am one grateful member, offer even more areas of study. Their variations in age, education, personality and geography provide an endless exercise in placing ourselves in perspective. We can secretly compare, envy, pity or admire our relatives while enjoying a hot dog and a beer on a sunny summer day.

If we come from an immigrant connection that the family still maintains, the possibilities increase. Not only do we share ethnic foods, dances, religious attitudes and what-have-you from the old country, but also reunion visits from relatives who still live there. It is a mutual exchange of understanding, always a good thing in a fragmented world such as ours.

After we are married for a while, our spouses become integral parts of our family, as we are of theirs, and the family reunion is their opportunity to practice membership. By now, my husband loves to eat krumkake and julekage, and he has even learned to say, “Ya, you betcha” with just the right inflection.

Kids learn a lot from family reunions, and not just how to play horseshoes. They notice that Mom’s relatives say “no” to their children just as often as she does to them or that Dad’s family rants fervently about the same political topics that he does.

They see that Uncle Bob’s famous stubborn streak is reflected in brother Tom. Or, when the singing starts, they find that most people in this family can carry a tune and love to sing. They come to realize that they are a valued member of a large and varied group, and they feel both protected and verified by that.

All families are different, but all families are the same in creating unique customs. Some play bocce ball, some play music together, and others enjoy kinfolk over ham hocks and grits. Some hand out name tags, some rely on often faulty memory.

Our family applauds the oldest and youngest members present, those who have traveled the farthest, and all the couples married and new babies born during the past year. And always, we thank God for family before the meal.

One day, when most of the older folks are gone, perhaps our family reunion will fade away. And then later, future generations may canvass the country for distant relatives to enjoy a new family reunion.

Whatever it is, the family reunion remains one of the greatest schools in town.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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