Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Thinking about Reunions

I spent the day scanning reunion announcements that were found in the trunks of things that have been passed along to me. There were three reunions: The Gillespie Family Reunion, which started in 1910, The Dodder Family Reunion, which started in 1926, and The WAG (William A. Gillespie) Family Reunion, which started in 1957. I've not seen formal announcements from the very early days, maybe there were none other than word of mouth. But eventually the families grew to a size where announcements were sent by mail to family members, usually well ahead of time so that people could plan in advance to attend. And for a very long time, many did.

The phenomenon of the family reunion was really something. They were organized! They were in practice almost an institution! They had officers and committees, and business meetings. And family history was only a fraction of its purpose. Each reunion documented the oldest attendee and the youngest, and there was a reading of the past year's vital statistics - who was born, who married, who died. But they also worked long and hard on entertainment and activities for all the different age groups to participate in. It was a time for everybody to have some fun together. And I think most of the time, they did. Some of my earliest memories are of Michigan summers at these "events" that would be jammed with old and young alike, all of whom I knew nothing about because my family always traveled from beyond Michigan to attend. But reliably I would always be hugged by elders who looked and smelled funny, and then I would run off with the other kids to explore all the stuff in the family museum, or to ride around in the carriage that had come to Michigan from Canada. It seems like so long ago and it seems like yesterday.

So this afternoon, I found myself daydreaming about what a Gillespie reunion might look like today. And I started to think about all the relations I have met through the internet since I started working with this family history several years ago. What I come to realize as I locate and slowly get to know each new relation, is how we all come from the same traceable origin and yet how we have all branched out into the world in our own ways. Which is to say we're different. I think back in "the day", closer to the center of the now gigantic circle, people were more alike, generally speaking. We know they had the same ethnicity. We know they were all Protestant Christians and from their earliest days in America, their politics were Republican. We know they all knew what it meant to be self sustaining, to grow their own food and hunt and build and rebuild their homes. They all lived within certain economic means that seemed to improve gradually over time with all the talent and hard work of all the family units. They believed in education and service, and applied themselves vigorously in their communities as well as their families. And most certain of all, this summary of their ideology was shared. I think at a family reunion, one could count on having lively conversation with members who for the most part believed and lived a shared existence.

But how would that look today? So many progeny left the Michigan home nest, scattering to the four winds of the planet. And in the course of those journeys we diversified. We followed our interests and our hearts along unimagined paths. We moved, we worked, we fought wars, we struggled for peace and prosperity, and we fell in love with people and places so different from our Michigan heritage that we ourselves changed and grew into our own unique lives. We came to believe in something, whatever it is, and today we nurture ourselves and our loved ones within that context. But who are we Gillespie's now? We're not all the same any more. We have married across many lines by now. We have not one religion nor any singular spiritual view. We've found no one traditional way to make a living and feed our families. Our politics range the gamut, no doubt. And our families? Well, some look like they used to, and some do not. We're a blend now, both as individuals and as families.

Maybe the challenge of accepting our differences in the world is to accept them first among ourselves in our own families. My father, who was not a Gillespsie by the way, taught me this valuable lesson. For years, he and I didn't have much to do with each other because there wasn't a subject under the sun we could agree about. But somewhere HE decided that he simply didn't want that dynamic with his daughter any more. So he listened rather than judged, and gently, he asked me to do the same. With time and practice, we had lively conversations that we knew would never result in changing the other's point of view. But he'd kiss me on the cheek and I'd hug him hard, and we could smile with such deep affection knowing that loving each other was really all that mattered most.

So I think if I am ever part of resurrecting the reunion tradition, I will send announcements that say something like this: Come as you are. Be welcome and be seen and be open. Look into the kaleidoscope and be amazed. We are each part of the mosaic simply by virtue of the heritage we all claim, and we belong. We're blood. We're family. Let's introduce ourselves.

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