Family Reunions

Family reunions were a prime feature of my summers growing up in small town Iowa in the 1970s.

William Nelson Whitesell Family circa 1900

Back row, left to right: Lydia Kesler, Jane Ladd, Etta Hall, Effie Hall, Eva Mark, Helena Steward, Dorothea Marshall, Estella Windecker; Middle row: Julia Kesler, Ethel Hays, Della Stout, Caroline Whitesell, William Nelson Whitesell, John Whitesell; Front row: Paul Whitesell, Anna Bacon, Willie Whitesell

Family reunions were a prime feature of my summers growing up in small town Iowa in the 1970s. Each August there was always at least one branch of the family getting together. Along with the massive amounts of picnic food, there were tales of bootleggers and break ups, whisperings of the latest gossip, and sometimes special stories shared of a relative who had died that year.

As shown in the picture above, my ancestors had large families. Pictured above are my great-grandmother, Eva and her twin Effie and their 13 siblings that range across 31 years. In the center of the photo are her father and step-mother. When Eva and Effie were 7, their mother died and their father married his wife’s sister Carolyn and they continued to have children for a total of 18. Of those, 15 grew to adulthood and raised families. This was not uncommon in the area where I grew up, as my mother’s father also had 15 siblings. This made for very large reunions, even if it was simply the nuclear family.

By the time I was growing up, families were still big, but not as big. My mother’s family had a spread of 18 years between oldest and youngest. That resulted in grandchildren of my generation being in three “sets” divided by age; the teenagers who terrorized us, “the middlings” who were grammar school age, and then the babies who were made up of the children of the youngest of my mother’s siblings. There was just enough spread between the groups that we separated naturally. Reunions were always filled with kids running, hiding, screaming and playing until the adults had had enough and shoo’ d all the noise outside.

Sitting alongside the requisite potato salad and fried chicken, jello salads, copper pennies, green bean casseroles and any number of other potluck dishes, one aunt always brought a watermelon cut into a bowl for fruit salad, complete with a carrying handle. It burst with bright colors from the many fruits of summer (which of course fit right in), but the added watermelon “bowl” represented useless work. Our family’s midwestern puritanical ethic filled that picnic table with a bounty of home cooked food, but that artistic bowl stood out in stark contrast and never fit in with the rest. Of course, it was always something I looked forward to – that bowl was me. An artist in the midst of an entirely practical farming family. I never really quite fit in either.

My memories are rich with more than just visual images. Smells of sweet and savory foods, the musty stone walls of the picnic shelter, rich newly mowed green grass, sweat and damp clothes, all mixed in and magnified by that peculiar “old people smell” are perhaps even stronger. Intertwined is the raucous laughter, whispers of new scandals and screams of children echoing off those walls, until the noise became too much for older folks. Suddenly there’d be a loud male bark and all the children were chased out into the park leaving the adults to continue their more dignified socializing.

We’ve become a much more mobile society since the 1970s and it’s a challenge just getting my four grown children and their families together for a holiday or special occasion. Most of the time, we are spread from coast to coast in the U.S., and before we started using Zoom during the pandemic, we rarely saw each other all together.

As I trace our family roots that spread from New England across the country, I can imagine how it must have felt to be so cut off from one’s roots. I am incredibly grateful for the digital age with so many different ways to connect in close to real time, if not instantaneously. I can facetime with my daughter at the drop of a hat. It makes me know instinctively just how precious those letters and, if really lucky, a picture would have been back in the 1800s.

As pioneers, people moved away from family to search out new opportunity, but they left behind a large piece of themselves back home. In doing so, they learned to be self reliant and independent, and raised their families to do the same. Yet, I believe that in doing so things were lost. The warmth and security of your kin being close. The ability to have someone to turn to in crisis. The feeling of COMMUNITY and the implications of shared responsibility.

In our digital age, we have the opportunity to bring some of those reunions back, even if through screens, and the pandemic taught us that miles don’t need to mean distance any more. I hope that as my children form their families and grow, they find ways to recapture those family reunions – even if they aren’t all in a picnic shelter in sweltering August heat.

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