by Lee Foster
Is there an art to organizing a family reunion?
For a period of more than 30 years my four sisters and I, accompanied by our parents, spouses, significant others, and children, gathered for an annual summer family reunion.
Our group of 15-20 people, ages 1-85, has convened at some choice location, usually in California or the West, for a few core days of family camaraderie. Our family members come from Minnesota, California, and Indonesia for this annual ritual.
The original event that sparked our first family reunion was a sad moment–the death of our mother. The feeling of the five children coming together was so positive that we resolved to meet each year, rather than wait for funerals to unite us.
Over the years I have been appointed de facto family organizer of this event. After all, shouldn’t a veteran travel writer know something about good places to travel to? As the years progressed, I have been given broad discretionary powers, almost as a benevolent dictator.
The reunions have gone well, so I have decided to define some thoughts both on how to organize a reunion and where to go.
I’ll share with you my best judgments about the process and some of our favorite reunion locations.
So here goes:
1. Appoint someone in the family as chairman to take charge and make decisions.
Family reunions can’t be run by a committee. A family reunion needs a group leader with the time, patience, and tact to arrange the details.
Weigh all the expressed wishes of family members as to date, place, and activities. Everything from school schedules to desired budget limits must be considered. Then decide what the plan will be and communicate frequently to family members who will attend, building the anticipation.
2. Realize that the family changes and is never the same.
We try to emphasize that each reunion is an event in itself, a moment to be savored, for the here and now.
The reunion exists for those who choose to participate. Some family members inevitably will not be able to come.
The reunion is not a repeat of past years. We usually choose a new place every year to signal the freshness of the event.
Part of the fun of the reunion is the opportunity to embrace the evolving family scene.
3. Accommodate your family in the style to which they have become accustomed.
Don’t go too rustic, which will offend, or too posh, which will strain budgets.
If the chairman wants to commit everyone to a five-day rafting trip on Idaho’s River of No Return, the Salmon River, the question arises: is that everyone’s notion of a good time?
Our family has discovered how much we like to cook for ourselves. Your family might want to escape this task. We have some talented chefs, so our idea of a good time now includes creating a family feast. Our Kauai, Hawaii, and Bodega Bay, California lodgings proved excellent for indulging in this passion.
Around the dinner table or out on the trail, the one-on-one conversations and cross-generational bonds create the essence of a satisfying family reunion. If the lodging, food, and activities all work together, magic moments occur.
4. Balance the social intensity of the family meeting with some cultural activities that enhance the family.
Our Ashland, Oregon family reunion was particularly memorable because we all saw Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Besides the attraction of re-meeting family members, think of the reunion as a time when family members can enrich themselves culturally or in their awareness of nature. For example, at Ashland we also rafted the Rogue River together.
5. Plan some activities that everyone can participate in, regardless of age or physical prowess.
The glue that binds families together is the sense that being part of the family is all that is needed.
For example, at our most recent reunion, held at Waimea Plantation Cottages on the island of Kauai, Hawaii, I wanted everyone to see the fabled Na Pali Coast.
Previously, I had hiked the Kalalau Trail to see the beauty of this coast, but I ruled that out for the family, as too rigorous for some participants.
So I chartered a boat, the Na Pali Kai, for the day, and we motored up to see the beauty of the coast. We snorkeled in some choice spots, then watched the sea turtles and dolphins that swam by. The trip offered something for all ages, all physical abilities, and required no special clothes or equipment.
On other years I’ve chosen some zany activities that were great levelers. Think of activities that everyone can do, especially if you are a competitive group, as we are. At our Bodega Bay, California, reunion I bought kites for everyone and we flew the kites at Salmon Beach. With a kite in hand and a brisk wind blowing, everyone could participate equally.
What activities the family will want to participate in will change over the years. For example, when we started, there were only a couple of golfers in our group. Now there are only a couple of people who don’t play golf. A reunion site, for our group, must now ideally be near a golf course.
6. Emotional fireworks may occur, even if you never hear them explode.
Reunions can be inherently volatile and incendiary events, even if the turmoil has little outward manifestation.
As everyone ages, the reunion becomes a time to evaluate ourselves and our clan, to take stock of our relationships. Elation, equanimity, and disappointment are only a few of the possible resulting emotions.
Frictions may simmer as all the generations compare success stories and evaluate each other’s achievements.
Sibling rivalries never die, but may mellow out.
The grief of a family saddened by death, divorce, and other possible traumas affects children and adults at a reunion, who realize that the traditional, once-complete family no longer exists.
Successful reunions require that family members extend to each other generous emotional space and support, especially if one or more family member is going through difficult times.
Emotional gyrations may take unusual forms. For example, the intensity of our family reunions, the anticipation of seeing each other, the pleasure in the core group is so strong that bringing a casual acquaintance along can be risky. Will this person, competing for valuable family attention, be around next year?
Family reunions are times when floods of happiness and sadness wash over people. Both emotional ranges can be overwhelming experiences.
7. Some final advice:
Go back to your roots, but also venture forth. We’ve enjoyed a return to our native Minnesota, an immersion in the lake cottage world of Grand View Lodge on Gull Lake. But we’ve also savored excursions into new territory, such as Hawaii.
Reunions get easier as the years pass. Reunions can be an extremely satisfying residual memory as life proceeds.
Consider creating reunion mementos. T-shirts, baseball caps, and kites with your family name on them are good possibilities.
Everyone will protest the effort to do the family photo or video, but all will appreciate it later.
For the Fosters, the annual family reunion has become a high point of the year, a time of celebration, sharing, and special events. Perhaps your own family will also have some memorable experiences if you practice the art of the family reunion.
Family Reunions: If You Plan One
Here are my judgments on five good family reunion sites, some of the best we’ve experienced:
1. Waimea Plantation Cottages, Kauai, Hawaii. We rented a large house, the Manager’s Estate, on this former sugar cane plantation. The house had five bedrooms. This may have been our best reunion ever. We could prepare our feasts, savor the wide lawns, indulge in the peace and quiet. Though somewhat rustic, the place had an excellent pool. We all saw the beautiful Na Pali Coast from a chartered boat. Some of us drove to Waimea Canyon and hiked the Kalalau Trail.
For further information, contact Waimea Plantation Cottages, http://www.waimea-plantation.com.
2. House rental at Bodega Bay, California. We rented a large, five-bedroom house on the coast, at Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco, from a local entity known as Vacation Rentals USA. The house was called the Harbor Master house, 1487 Bay Flat Road. We flew kites at Salmon Creek Beach. One of our best family hikes ever was a choice three-miler along the Pomo Canyon Trail, showing us both oak woodlands and redwood groves. We ate regional seafood at Lucas Wharf in Bodega Bay.
For further information, contact Bodega Bay Rentals at http://www.bbbvr.com/.
3. The Ahwahnee and Yosemite Lodge at Yosemite National Park, California. The natural splendors of Yosemite are a world-class treat. The Ahwahnee is posh. Yosemite Lodge is more reasonable. We did day hikes on the valley floor and explored some of the outlying areas by car, such as Glacier Point. We let the chefs at the Ahwahnee do our cooking.
For further information, contact Yosemite Concession Services-Reservation, http://www.yosemitepark.com.
4. Grand View Lodge on Gull Lake, Minnesota. This reunion allowed us to re-live our youth, those lazy summer days at cottages and lodges in Minnesota. Grand View is one of the best such lodges, with a choice lakefront location. The lodge price includes delicious breakfasts and dinners, plus plenty of watersport activities for everyone during the day. There’s also golf, something that has become more important to some members of our family over the years.
For further information, contact Grand View Lodge, http://www.grandviewlodge.com.
5. Buckhorn Springs Inn at Ashland, Oregon. This lovely rustic retreat, about 15 miles east of Ashland, was another great reunion site. The proprietors cooked delicious food from their large, organic garden. The setting was rural and peaceful, a former turn-of-the-century spa. From this base we rafted the Rogue River, bicycled around Crater Lake, and enjoyed Shakespeare at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The Adventure Center in Ashland arranged logistics for our outings.
For further information, contact Buckhorn Springs Inn, http://www.buckhornsprings.org.