It’s summer, which means it’s that time of year again — family reunion time! And if you have a large extended family that means you may have several reunions to attend for multiple branches. On average, there are 3-4 per summer that I often attend in the NC mountains, and it’s great to see people again after a year or two of being scattered across the country. After years of different reunions with different vibes, here is a list of ideas I’ve gathered that can make them really special. Try one or more in your family!
1) Recipes Other than visiting, the next best thing about reunions is food! Everybody brings something to share, just like a giant potluck dinner after church. Why not carry it a step further? Bring great dishes that have been passed down in your family for generations, such as Granny Maggie’s prune cake, or Aunt Ruth’s homemade dinner rolls. Bring copies of the recipe to pass out to those who ask or comment on it, and tell them who invented it. Or make a special dish in honor or in memory of someone who can’t be there. Either a dish that person loved, or was known for bringing. For example a pound cake in memory of Granny Nell, who used to always bring one. Share secret ingredients if you know any. Maybe she used a couple tablespoons of whiskey in the cake to flavor it, but very few people knew that!
2) Story Swapping Every family has great stories to tell. Try to interview the oldest family members and record their memoirs first, or encourage them to write them down. For example, during the Civil War, my 4th great-grandmother was so incensed when traveling soldiers stole a honey pot among other things from her family, that she chased after them. She was angry because they were stealing food from her grandchildren whose father had been killed. She picked up a rock, aimed at the pot and broke it, spilling the stolen honey. One of the soldiers charged at her with a bayonet, which she grabbed, badly cutting her hands and paralyzing one finger, but they did not get the honey. Another favorite is my great grandparents’ elopement in 1915. She was 16, he was 22. His family was made of strong and prominent republicans, hers equally strong and prominent democrats. Neither family approved of a marriage, and their first elopement attempt failed. She sent her younger sister outside in the middle of the night to catch her clothes as she threw them out the window. When she whispered in the dark, “Do you have them?” her father’s voice replied “Yes, I have them.” However, a 2nd attempt was successful; she met my great grandfather in the woods, and they rode across the NC hills on horseback into Tennessee and married, later having 7 children and a marriage that lasted 70 years.
3) Family Trees Even at a reunion where everyone is related somehow, there are multiple branches. Make a tree (either a typed tree or a drawing of a tree with branches) and fill in your branch with the information you know. Let others add to it, or provide blank copies for other branches. When enough branches are completed, designate people to make copies to mail (or email) to everyone later.
4) Play Music If there are musicians in the family, ask them to bring their instruments and play together, it brightens the atmosphere. At one reunion, the new husband of a cousin began to sing with the music, causing everyone to stop and look for whom that wonderful voice belonged to. Turns out that he sang in his own band when he was younger, but who knew? Now he’s a yearly fixture with the family band at that reunion.
5) Decorate a Cemetery It may seem strange to hold a family reunion in a cemetery, but that’s exactly what one branch of my family does. A band of family musicians plays gospel music, while others clean and decorate the cemetery with new flowers. Every grave is attended to. It’s a group effort to care for that cemetery and the ancestors buried there, while also visiting with each other. At the end the whole place is bursting with color.
6) Games A good way to have fun and also draw the interest of older kids, who may not yet be that interested in family history. One game can be a family hunt. Which people have green eyes? Which have brown or blue eyes? How many are tall or short? Who is the oldest member there? How many were born in the 1930s? (or in each decade). Another game might be odd facts trivia (remember to keep the trivia fun and good spirited). Which grandmother is doubled jointed and can bend a finger backward? Which great-grandfather used to entertain us with mule rides? Which great-grandmother chopped her own firewood into her 90s? Which centenarian still pieces quilts by hand?