WRITTEN BY CARYL CLEM:
Across America, families plan reunions during the summer months. My Dad was the youngest of 13 living siblings. I was the youngest grandchild. On my calendar the 2nd week in August had stars to signal my relatives congregating in southern Illinois for a reunion extravaganza. After the 6 hour car ride, I felt like a time traveler roaming through Grandma’s cozy farmhouse, touching the immense, cool cast iron wood burning stove, examining lace covered carved wood tables and chairs under glowing Gone with the Wind kerosene lamps; exchanging hugs with relatives in every room. Outside, the foul smelling 3 dirt hole bench seat under a decaying sun speckled wood roofed shed was still in use. There was no plumbing until after 1962.
Every family was assigned a dish to bring at either the Saturday or Sunday meal, depending on your arrival time. Tables and chairs provided by the local church covered the spacious front yard with predominantly red and white checked tablecloths. Large washtubs lined with plastic were filled with ice for the lemonade and tea. Grandmother would not allow any beverage served in a bottle including milk, soda or pop.
All of the family members, without gray hair, took turns passing water buckets from the pump to the porcelain kitchen sinks. No motels or hotels were close. By 7 p.m., caravans of relatives spread out to neighboring family farms to spend the night. Country breakfasts featuring eggs with homemade ham, bacon, sausage, gravy and biscuits would start the next day.
After feasting, musical entertainment was provided by a large assortment of musical instruments forming an impromptu band accompanied by several vocalists. Voting by elected judges would begin on whose fried chicken, pie and homemade ice-cream deserved the “Best” of that year award. A photographer came on Sunday after our church service to take a photo before the last dinner together. Sisters Aunt Edith (English instructor) and Aunt Inez (culinary chef) compiled a yearly newsletter with a family collection of favorite recipes and stories to give everyone before they left.
Leaving suburban Chicago to jump into haystacks, feed livestock, eat finger-picking good potluck dinners followed by sleeping with 8 or more cousins in one big room was a summer highlight until Grandma, 98 years young, died in 1965. The attendance started to drop with grandchildren putting careers first.
After 10 years, the original 4 who did the organizing were aging and tried to find a younger core group to keep the reunion going. However,with no success. A property developer wanted to build a subdivision along the winding creek. Just before the farm was sold, the final reunion was held with over 125 members, all wearing name tags with ages. Progress also brought hotels to provide lodging. Currently, sections of the family living near Windsor County, Illinois still unite on the 2nd Sunday in August to eat and celebrate another year.
My brother’s wife’s family includes me in their family reunions as an “outlaw” with privileges. Each year celebrates new members, honors those who have passed, as we eagerly exchange photo albums and stories of the past years events. The elephant gift trade is hilarious. Hotels provide lodging but meals are at family members’ homes. At the close, there is the T-shirt with a landmark picture to wear through the year.
Family love is the strongest when shared; the magic feeling of a reunion keeps me looking forward to the next one.