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The best family gatherings reunite what we share
By Faith Barnebey, Special to the Times
Published December 18, 2007
She is queen of the affair, her throne a wheelchair.
A handsome woman, bright and spirited, at the age of 96 Aunt Pauline has traveled from Ohio to Oregon. And on this night, at what is billed as a "farewell dinner," we pay her tribute with a standing ovation. She responds with a smile and a wave. With Midwestern unflappability.
The occasion is a reunion of my husband's family, and we have come to Oregon - 82 strong - from the West and Northeast, from North Carolina, Florida,even Alaska.
Our ages range from 6 to 96 and span five generations. The mix of ages proves a rallying point. A small child pats the cheek of a great-grandmother and both smile, each fascinated by the other.
Family reunions, so I hear, are becoming a passing tradition. Because of our mobile society, families now scatter to far-flung places and get caught up in busy lives: too far to travel, too little time.
As a result, our connections wither, our perceptions go begging. Yet apart from camaraderie, reunions offer discovery. So I come away from Oregon with new impressions, things I've never really pondered until now.
Perhaps because I'm an in-law, not part of the bloodline, I think about the statement, often expressed in anger: "I didn't marry your family!"
Yet, we do marry the families. Husbands and wives bring to a marriage their values, their aspirations, their pasts: their families.
There must be, indeed will be, interaction. Whether it brings distress or delight, this commingling is a given. Fortunately, at our reunion, in-laws were not considered outlaws.
Tolstoy wrote, "All families are more or less like one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own particular way." His words recall a second discovery, the difference between family reunions and "gatherings" at holiday time with one's immediate family - a time many families dread.
When the holidays approach, we see a spate of articles about keeping peace around holiday tables. Why? Because families have problems, as well as high expectations. Both arrive gaily wrapped, often to later be shredded: A mother-in-law resents the new wife, and eventually it shows. Sibling rivalries still smolder, and finally erupt.
On the other hand, family reunions are viewed not with dread but with anticipation. If old resentments exist, they haven't a chance: too many people, too little time. So much to talk about, to catch up on.
Besides, families who hold reunions are for the most part at peace with themselves and one another.
Finally, at family reunions we discover our roots, what it means to be a Smith, a Jones, or a Barnebey. Although we recognize individual traits, we see most clearly, and, often surprisingly, the traits we have in common. Your family may be low-key or high-voltage, cautious or impulsive.
My husband's family pretty much rolls with the punches. Their traits, the traits of any family, are taught - and caught - by successive generations.
On the last day of our reunion we take pictures, tons of them, by family groups, by generations, and we finally cajole a waiter into taking shots of the whole bunch. With everyone's cameras, of course, since everyone wants mementos.
Later, as I look at the pictures, at the massed faces, I see not just separate families or blood kin or in-laws. What I see, what fairly jumps out at me, is a family, singular, its roots embracing all.
And there, on the end, is Aunt Pauline, smiling, her hand extended.
Welcome to the family.
Faith Barnebey is a freelance writer who returns to Sarasota from family reunions.