Janet Sheridan: Family reunions
August 27, 2010
I have an idea for a reality TV sensation: Family Reunion Frenzy.
This summer, my family gathered in Wyoming, and Joel's a week later in Illinois. I needed more recovery time: my eyes had barely begun to refocus when we departed for the Sheridan festivities.
I have six siblings, and Joel has seven.
Counting children, grandchildren, family friends with more courage than sense and curious strangers with Oh-My-God expressions, both families became multitudes — or mobs, depending on one's viewpoint.
From the planning to the farewells, most family reunions resemble three-ring circuses on steroids.
Months in advance, it must be determined who can attend and when. Calls and e-mails of diminishing civility are exchanged until a grudging consensus is forged.
Next, specific dates are debated. Folks inform one another of previously scheduled functions they can't miss: dental appointments, pet spayings, the finale of "Desperate Housewives."
Once a date is selected, the search begins for a site that can handle rampaging hordes. Again, bickering transpires —mostly polite.
Pity the unfortunate person who coordinates the chaos.
My siblings and I noticed that being in charge had aged Blaine. We worried as he wandered around wild-eyed, mumbling about herding cats.
Relatives late, missing or with a new look fueled wagging tongues.
An aunt spread the news that Nelly's bunch had arrived late and empty-handed — just in time to eat. Some claimed absent Bert would attend only if we met in his backyard, and then he'd leave early.
We commented at length about Evelyn's tattoo, Jimmy's weight gain and Gerta's enhanced chest.
Throughout the day, each generation did its thing.
Toddlers wobbled through a forest of adult legs, picked up dead-animal parts and discarded their clothing. They ate watermelon and rolled in dirt for a disguise. They ran hell-bent-for-leather into the lake to test their parents' reflexes. They fell asleep on stairs, in the canoe, and at dinner with tendrils of spaghetti in their hair.
Children clung to their parents and eyed one another shyly before responding to a signal — only they recognized — that united them in play.
Teenagers illustrated their ability to multi-task: texting friends not seen since morning, nodding to music from earphones, discussing when they could escape and reprimanding errant siblings.
New parents tended to their babies with a distracted air, intent on conversations with the cousins they once chased and teased.
Older folks issued health bulletins, discussed retirement benefits, and remembered when they organized the softball games and encouraged the water fights. As a sister-in-law remarked while we sat and watched the hubbub around us: "Can you believe it? We've become the old aunts."
Those with the strongest voices commanded attention as needed:
"You kids quit throwing watermelon rinds!"
"Whoever took Roscoe's cane needs to bring it back right now!"
"Someone make Emily stop drinking from that puddle!"
And the ever-popular, "Food's ready; there's plenty for everybody; no need to stampede and shove."
Reunion food. Oh my. Food tastes better when prepared by loved ones and eaten shoulder-to-shoulder with those who know and accept your triumphs and failures, struggles and strengths, character flaws and questionable politics.
Each year, long-time relationships deepen and new ones form around tables filled with favored family recipes and multiple desserts.
Then we left.
A few carried out stealth departures, quietly drifting away to avoid the tumult; others hugged anyone who wandered within arm's reach. Some cried, and several wanted to.
We exchanged promises to keep in touch and proposed vague plans for next year as cars were loaded and children waved from rear windows.
Each year after our reunions, I think about the parable of the prodigal son: the feasting and rejoicing that took place upon his return, the hurt feelings of the older brother and his father's response, "'My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found."
And my heart overflows with gratitude for families.