Family Activities: Family ReunionsBy
Are family reunions good activities for kids? Based on my experience, I say, Yes! Go for it!
Last weekend I took two children, ages 5 and 7, to a large family reunion. By myself. Meaning their parents weren’t along because of a schedule conflict. It was just grandma—me—in charge.
Why did I take them? Because I think there are subtle, powerful benefits when kids know about their roots, their heritage. They learn that they are part of a long, unique, amazing story. They experience the host of people to whom they have birthright connections. They get family information that becomes part of their conscious identity, their personal narrative. They have a history-platform to stand on in the world.
So, the weekend event was a reunion of descendants of their great-great-great-grandparents, six generations ago. Wow! (That would be my great-grandparents.)
About 80 cousins—first, second, third, and fourth—and aunts and uncles and spouses were there, only a fraction of the number of possible relatives on that side of the family, according to a book that lists them all. The oldest attendee was 91: beautiful, blond great-great Aunt Anne.
We traveled to this family reunion via a five-hour car ride to beautiful Paso Robles, CA. I’d checked out 20+ children’s books from the library and stocked up on drawing paper and markers. (No digital games for this trip: we were going back to the past.) The kids rode in car seats in the back; Cousin Yvonne was driver; I supervised from the passenger side.
Trip highlights began early, when we exited Los Angeles over the famous I-5 Grapevine pass into the San Joaquin valley. There’s lots of history just in that section of the drive. Cousin Yvonne talked about wagon trains going over the pass, and the zigzag of the old routes, long before modern highways.
Then we sped past miles and miles of flat agricultural land on a road lined with huge electrical pylons.
Finally we made the Paso Robles hotel: Rose and Calvin loved our room. For just a bit I allowed jumping on the fluffy queen-sized hotel bed—not long enough to damage the mattress, but enough to satisfy the need of a 5-year-old boy to expend a little energy and feel ‘whee!’
Then over the next two days, there were family presentations in a large conference room. I was blown away/ delighted/ relieved/ and grateful by how cooperative the kids were. For hours, Calvin quietly drew pictures and drove his miniature big-wheel along the carpet.
Rose, already a voracious reader, tuned out the presenters’ voices and read Junie B. Jones books. The promise of time in the hotel pool made the meetings bearable.
Then there was the adventure of driving into the country to see the house and farm their great-great grandfather built. It’s now transformed into an expensive B & B, surrounded by vineyards. But it’s where a devout Mennonite family with ten children lived and worked through about six decades of the 20th century.
And there was a stop at the tiny graveyard where ancestors are buried and engravings are in German. What caught Rose and Calvin’s attention most was a tiny grave with a stone that indicated the baby buried there had lived only one day. “Oh, that’s so sad,” they said repeatedly to one another and to me.
Next was a drive on a dirt road, deep into the ravines of the county, past bone-dry hillocks and dense oak groves, to an old ranch house still occupied by Cousin Gene. The kids were amazed at the deer skulls on the fence, and the mounted heads of a cougar, a big-horned sheet, a coyote—wild native animals shot long ago.
Finally, they had the very best part of the whole trip: about an hour on a round tire-swing on a swivel joint in the park where we had a barbeque. Rose and Calvin laughed wildly and sweated profusely as they spun each other around. “I want a swing like that for my birthday,” Rose declared.
The memories these kids will talk about most, I expect, are the hotel bed and pool, the tire-swing in the park, the tiny baby’s grave, and the mounted animal heads.
But somewhere deep in their memories will also be the knowledge that they had a great-great-great-grandpa and grandma, and that they know where to find them.
That’s what I really was after for them.