Ask a care manager: After the big reunion
When there are nine children on each side of the parent family and nine children of their own plus their children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren that span a number of years, it’s safe to say that planning a family get-together — a reunion — can be a very big deal. With the original parents gone and all their siblings gone as well, it can a bit mysterious about whom to invite, how to find them and, then, wonder who will show up. Planning for ages, disability, food, games, maps, lodging, etc. — all were on the minds of the two youngest brothers of this family as they agreed to co-chair this event. The last reunion occurred in 2007. Depending on who you talk to, the event was definitely a happening and great fun.
Now that it’s over, it’s interesting to think about what really constitutes a family and how one person’s perception may be entirely different from another person’s thoughts. Post World War II a family was described as a father, mother and children with aunts, uncles, cousins and a grandparent or two thrown in. Divorce was unusual and seldom talked about above a whisper. Widows from the results of the war seldom remained single or widowed for long and remarried for the “security” and expectations of the post-war society. Families generally stayed together geographically and if a move was made, it was very common for other members of the family to make the move as well to keep the family together.
The current family make-up includes all of the above along with second wives and husbands (in some cases thirds), partners, in-laws, step-children, half grandchildren, cousins-in law and a young boyfriend who met the family for the first time on his first ever camping trip.
The California roots for this family began years prior to World War II when the family moved west from Oklahoma due to the effects of the Depression and the dust bowl where farms were unsustainable, men were out of work and families were struggling to put food on the table. With promises of work in the logging camps, the oil fields and later the shipyards, a large share of this family made the move to California. Most settled in the Central Valley with a branch or two leaving the state for Texas and Washington.
One of the siblings began exploring years ago the stories around the emigration from Arkansas and Oklahoma to California. In the process, she found parts of the family tree that were in Indiana and Illinois with American family beginnings in Baltimore. Although the process is ongoing and by no means complete, this older sister brought some of the family history to the reunion to share, along with genealogy forms to complete for changes or new family members since the last get-together. These memories, pictures and historical legacies will be passed down from family members to children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren … many of whom were present at this picnic.
There was a concern that there would be a residual sadness at the event because the “parents” were all gone. Not only that, but three of the oldest children had died in the last seven years so there were a number of beloved and familiar faces missing. Although I heard their names mentioned often in the stories that were shared, I didn’t sense the degree of sadness that might have been. The interesting part of all the people who were there was how everyone had gotten older and, in not just one instance, had a strong resemblance to their parent(s) and/or older sibling who had passed on. The presence of those spirits could have been watching with delight as their children celebrated the family they began many years ago.
The day of the reunion was one of those recent incredibly hot days in the triple digits. Being outside in the summer air, you felt every degree. The only saving graces were the American River and the water fountain where the little ones took off their shoes to get their toes wet. Thank goodness for the calls for easy-ups that shaded groups around the picnic site where people would pull up chairs to visit with this family group or that one. Bottled water was in high demand. The brown dusty earth got all over everyone but it didn’t slow the little ones down as they chased one another, blew up helium balloons that escaped into the sky or drank from the water fountain while spraying the child alongside. Group pictures quickly became a challenge when the photographer arrived as integral parts of the family had migrated to the river and were jumping off a large boulder into the water. Although the river was low, the yelps of the kids as they hit that cold water let everyone know where the missing family members were. Rounding everyone up for the photos was a challenge but with a few missing members here and there, the photographer got it done.
Being an only child or not having family to speak of, the experience of a large family get-together is an experience that can’t be duplicated. To the uninitiated it certainly looked like chaos in motion. There were some visual attempts at continuity. Families representing the siblings chose a color for their group prior to the event. This was helpful at a glance to see the white shirt group knowing they were the genealogist, her husband and family; the purple group with the oldest sister and her family mainly from Washington; the gray shirt group representing the maternal side of the family; the blue group from Texas mostly and the green group who, along with the red bandana group, hosted the reunion.
Of course how could you get a large group of people together without food? Fortunately one of the hosting families had experience with catering so they took care of setting up the buffet line, making sure all the foods were on ice if need be and that everyone had adequate plates and utensils. As with any large group, there’s never a lack of food and there wasn’t — barbecued meats, salads, special family dishes, fresh fruits of the season, veggie trays, dips and birthday cupcakes for a 7-year-old for dessert. Leftover food was taken home, shared with others and was greatly appreciated in huge amounts by the more than 80 people who came.
Trying to plan for a family gathering had its challenges. One of the biggest pieces was trying to decide who was coming. That was never more evident than the day of the event when family members were unable to come due to a last-minute health issue; people didn’t show up and no one knew why; adult kids and their families came that had said they weren’t coming and then there they were. Small groups of adults gathered with whispers of “Who do you think that is?” or “Is that his new wife?” and “Oh my goodness, there’s Cousin Susan. I’ve not seen her for at least 10 years.” And then of course, the hugs. The touching of hands, shaking and grabbing the person by the shoulders, slapping the person on the back and the teary eyes. “Good to see you.” “Thanks for coming.” “How great to have you here.” “Is this your new grandbaby?” You get the picture.
It ended in a fairly boring manner with the rental company coming to pick up the rented tables and chairs. Most of the group had left with the rest just sitting in the shade with red dust sifting around in the air. The park ranger had come by, stopping the water balloon contest, but otherwise, the group had set up and taken down without leaving anything out of place. The exhaustion of the remaining family members was so palpable. It also took more energy than anyone had to help load the rented chairs, take the leftover food to the cars and give a final hug to many who they might not see for weeks and in some years to come.
Was it worth it? Of course. It was great fun, lots of work and energy we didn’t know we had until we had none left. But the banner custom made by the oldest brother who was unable to come was passed along to another sister. She lives in Texas and we’re all looking forward to the Lone Star state in two years as she’s in charge. We’re just going. Thank goodness for families and all they bring and give to us.
Carol S. Heape, MSW, CMC is CEO of Elder Options, Inc. , setting the standards for care managed home care in Sacramento, Placerville and South Lake Tahoe since 1988.