Making a Memorable Reunion

Mary and Connie find their husbands in an early reunion photo

Did your family, like ours, have a reunion this summer? It’s not too soon to begin planning your next one—no matter when you want to schedule it.

About sixteen years ago, when my dad and his youngest sister Mary were the only siblings still alive out of the original seven, we began a tradition of getting together every other August. Our reunions not only allow family members of all ages to connect with each other in a deeper way, but we also feel more connected to previous generations.

Here are some of the fun ideas we’ve used to help draw us closer. Feel free to adapt them for your next family get-together.

~Genealogy Chart
 Cousin Jackie’s an expert genealogist who has unearthed fascinating stories about the family. She contributed a beautiful genealogy chart (above) showing ancestors from Thomas and Ethel Rawlins, the parents of the seven siblings mentioned above, all the way back to the 1700s. The chart is featured at every reunion.

~Family Trees
Some of us see each other only at reunions. We use Sister Patty’s family “Tree” to help us place people in the proper families and learn their names. Photos of Thomas and Ethel are at the base of the tree. Twigs on separate branches for each of their seven children feature pictures of the siblings’ children’s and grandchildren.

~Reunion Albums
Cousin Bill, a photographer, made a 2-by-3-foot blow-up of a photo from the first Rawlins  reunion. All the cousins, in their sixties and seventies now, were crowded together on the grass in a laughing group. Today’s children like to pick out their grandparents in the black-and-white photo.

(All three of the above ideas can be seen in the above photo.)

Today everyone has a digital camera, so we take lots of pictures. We keep an album chronicling each reunion. It’s fun to leaf through the pages, watching the changes as the children grow up and revisiting memories of loved ones no longer with us.

~T-shirts
At one reunion, someone brought several plain t-shirts and some fine-point permanent markers. We signed our names on each shirt, as decorative or simple as we wished. Later, names were drawn to choose the shirts’ lucky recipients. Another time, everyone wore matching t-shirts screen printed with “Rawlins Reunion” across a silhouette of a tree.

~Video recordings
Video recordings of previous reunions are fun to watch and become increasingly precious as the years pass. One of the most enjoyable featured Aunt Mary, one of the seven siblings, sharing memories of her North Dakota childhood and the early years of the family in Washington.

Everyone, young to old, has fun at the Rawlins Reunion

~Games
Different volunteers at each reunion supervise games for kids and grownups. Home-grown fun is best…like this wrap-the-mummy contest, using toilet paper and cooperative volunteers like Delaney.

~Picture Match
This year we had a contest to see who could match the most graduation photos with the present-day versions of the same people. Most kids were able to pick out their own parents and grandparents, and everyone had fun seeing how we’ve changed.

Listening to William’s story

~Tell Me a Story
When our great-great-great grandfather Thomas Main Redfield, a blacksmith, was alive, he wrote long poems telling stories of his family and his travels. William Shaw, his many-times-removed great grandson, turned one of those poems about two children being rescued from a runaway horse and carriage into a dramatic reading. His sister Clarissa Austin expanded another family story about Grandmother Ethel and a prairie fire into a narrative that had us all wondering what would happen next.

~Interviews
Young family members were given a list of questions to use in interviewing older members. Then each interviewer introduced his or her partner and shared the fun and surprising facts they’d uncovered.

~Timelines

Eugene and Vicki look over the timeline

In a timeline game, Cousin Vickie handed out strips of paper: yellow for Grandfather Thomas’s side of the family, green for Grandmother Ethel’s, and blue for their descendants. Names and dates were printed on each strip. All those with a strip of paper gathered at the front where we could all see them, and at a signal, they hurried to arrange themselves by color and date. Then each person put his or her family member(s) in the proper place on a vertical timeline. By this time names were becoming familiar and the timeline helped us see the continuity of the generations.

~Sing-Alongs

Everyone knows “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”

We brought one of our most enjoyable family reunions to a close with an old-fashioned sing-along. We’d planned to use old-time favorites such as “Bicycle Built for Two” and “Cruisin’ Down the River on a Sunday Afternoon. We found that not even the oldsters knew all the words, so next time we’ll make song booklets so everybody can join in. Meanwhile, we improvised with a mixture of children’s tunes and campfire songs.

Old Friends

Miss Anderson’s first graders, 1941                     

One September morning when I was five years old, my mother pinned my name to my sweater and sent me down the long driveway with neighbor and “big sister” Marcella to wait for the school bus. I was so excited I couldn’t stop trembling.

What a day of firsts! My first bus ride. My first day in the big brick building that would be my second home for the next seven years. My first time to sit still for long periods of time until given permission to move. My first teacher. My first time to face more than forty little people my own age, some of whom, though I didn’t yet know it, would become lifelong friends.

Kids who lived in town shared not only school experiences but also out-of-school life as well. They grew up knowing everybody in town and all their stories. Bus kids like me missed out on small-town life, but after-school activities and sleep-overs with friends helped to fill in the gaps.

Because our school was small, our class moved in lockstep through the academic offerings until high school gave us a few electives. Boys and girls took separate physical education classes. Most boys took wood shop. Most girls signed up for home economics, although the good smells of cooking brought the boys clustering around the home ec door in hopes of handouts. We all went to the after-school ball games to cheer for our team, the Tigers.

Our twelve years as classmates flew by. Of the forty or so children who began first grade together, some moved away or dropped out. Others joined us later. Twenty-four of us made it to graduation together.

Then we scattered to follow different paths…some to jobs, some to marry and start families, some to military service, some to college. Many continued the friendships forged in school, although some of us reconnected only at high school reunions.

Now we are all in our seventies. Seven or eight years ago, Nancy retired from her paying job and decided it was time to do what she’d thought about for years. She began calling classmates, suggesting that those who lived nearby get together for lunch. Since then we have met on the 2nd Thursday of every other month for lunch. Spouses come too, as well as a few friends from other classes.

Death has claimed a few of us. At classmate Dick’s funeral last year, we came as a group to say goodbye. We’ve encouraged each other through illness and loss of family members. We ask after each other’s children. We tell stories of our lives. Of course we reminisce about our shared memories.

Some classmates travel elsewhere in the winter but come back to join us in the summer. Others live far away, but occasionally return to touch base. At our last luncheon, seventeen people came.  Of those, eleven of us had started first grade together back in 1941. Sixty-nine years, and we’re still enjoying each other’s company.

Sarri Gilman was talking about Baby Boomers on Facebook in a recent column in The Herald, but what she said is worth remembering, no matter what our age: “…if you do open yourself, you will find that restoring some of these very old friends from the past can be enriching. By the time you get to 50, life has leveled the field. Everyone has had enough reality to realize we are all tender beings, and life is short.”

There’s a lot of truth in the adage, “Old friends are the best friends.”

Classmates at 55th reunion, 2009