July 8, 2016

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Treasured family reunions reunite us with our roots

Cynthia DewesSummer means family time, an idea which strikes fear into some of us. But for others like me, it means pleasure. They say that family is the group of people who have to take you in no matter what, but I find family to be a place of safety and moral support in both good times and bad.

Not all families are touchy-feely, not all are fun to be around, but they still offer a kind of affirmation we don’t get anywhere else. Families are more different than they are alike, as my own parents’ families prove. As I’ve said before, my dad’s family was commonsense and my mom’s was, well, a bit crazy. One was practical and efficient, and the other was creative. But both were kind, generous and loving.

One of the best parts of a family reunion is the time spent in reminiscing and analyzing all its members. We remember fondly our Great-Aunt Sarah, who was a middle-aged Irish-Catholic spinster when she married our bachelor Great-Uncle Pete, a Norwegian Lutheran. He had rented a room at the home of Sarah and her parents, and after a while, friendship blossomed into romance.

To me as a little girl, when visiting them with my parents, their home was a delightful wonder, full of antiques and doilies and figurines with which I was allowed to play carefully. On the dining room table was a huge bowl filled with the costume jewelry Auntie Sarah loved to wear. Every morning, she would select earrings, bracelets and necklaces to wear to her job as a bookkeeper.

Auntie Sarah was funny, and told hilarious Pat and Mike jokes, at which Uncle Pete laughed loudest. Only later, after both had passed on and I was a grown-up, did I realize the depth and charm of their romance. They left behind a silver loving cup on which was engraved, “Happy First Anniversary, from Pete to Sarah.” And, since they never had children of their own, my cousins and I received many mementos from their treasures.

Uncle Pete always accompanied Auntie Sarah to Mass. He told me he would have converted, but it would scandalize his staunchly Lutheran family. Whatever the case, faith was important on both sides of my family.

Mama’s grandparents came to this country as Catholics, but there being no Catholic churches in the wilderness, they eventually became Freethinkers. Personally, I like to think that all reasonable people of any faith are freethinkers, but that’s another story.

Freethinking extended to other matters. Great-Grandpa Winnen was supposed to be a farmer supporting his wife and 13 children. But he spent most of his time carving imaginative wooden furniture church altar pieces, jewelry boxes for his daughters, and woodwork in his house when no other project came to mind. Apparently, he was such a sweet man that no one objected, and the rest of the family ran the farm.

Family reunions provide the material and the occasion to reflect on those who’ve gone before us in life. Graced by God, we are the products of generations of Auntie Sarahs, Uncle Petes and Great-Grandpa Winnens. Whether our family is seriously dysfunctional or the Waltons, we are partly the results of those who came before.

Yet, we are all unique because we are made in the image of God. We really can’t take credit for the triumphs of our forebears, any more than we can use their faults as an excuse. They are a reason, not an excuse.

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

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