When American friends become engaged to Sevillanos, they are often staggered to learn that in accord with Spanish tradition, they’ll be having lunch with their in-laws every Sunday. "Every Sunday?" they ask in stunned disbelief. "We have to eat with your parents and your brothers and your sisters every single Sunday for the rest of our lives?”
In the US, that kind of family closeness is unusual, almost unimaginable. We’re simply not used to it. But Americans never like to miss out on things, so we’ve come up with an efficient way to jam intense family contact into a single weekend. I am talking about, of course, the family reunion.
When I was a child, we often visited back and forth with relatives, but no one I knew had ever attended the kind of full-scale clan gathering you see today. That custom entered our culture in 1977 with the miniseries Roots: The Saga of an American Family, from the book in which author Alex Haley traces his ancestry back to an African sold into slavery. Haley’s story later fell into hot dispute over plagiarism and questionable genealogy research, but that didn’t change its impact. Overnight, it seemed as if the entire population of America realized that knowing something about our ancestors might teach us something about our selves. Millions started tracing their genealogy, asking Grandma about the old days, and holding family gatherings.
Twice in the last two decades, my cousins have organized reunions, big chaotic affairs filled with laughter, stories, faces I hadn’t seen since childhood, and names known only through anecdotes. I realize it's unfair to dislike someone because they were cruel to a teddy bear in 1956, but sometimes it’s hard to get past the past and see them for who they are today.
Most years, our reunion is meeting my sisters and their families in the mountains of northern California, where the main activity is sitting under beach umbrellas on trucked-in sand beside an artificial lake and talking about how great it is to get back to nature. We enjoy non-electronic pastimes (remember them?) such as charades, Monopoly, and pie-eating contests.
When the kids were younger, I was the weird aunt who told hair-raising tales about the Man with the Hook, the Disappearing Teenager, and the Monkey’s Paw. Many of those kids slept with the light on for years, but they all begged for more. At the very least, I gave them something to talk about at future family reunions, to say nothing of sessions with the psychotherapists they'll need someday.
This summer, nearly half of all Americans will attend a family reunion, often traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to be there. Many are enormous gatherings requiring a year-long effort to track down every third cousin twice removed and arrange activities for all ages, tastes, and budgets. Naturally, a family-reunion-planning industry has sprung up to help. If you Google “planning a family reunion,” you’ll get 63,000,000 hits. The first one shows a cartoon man in Bermuda shorts holding a drink. The text reads: “Welcome to Mister Spiffy’s Reunion Planner. Mister Spiffy is a family reunion doctor trained in healing sick reunions.” This is disturbing on so many levels. First of all, if he’s a family reunion doctor, why is he called Mister Spiffy? More importantly, what’s a sick reunion? I guess you need to download his free demo and purchase his software and resource guide to find out.
Somehow I feel Mr. Spiffy’s first move would be to prevent me from telling horror stories to impressionable children, his second to recommend a 12-step program for my teddy-bear-torturer phobia. But when it comes right down to it, isn’t the purpose of a family reunion to learn more about who we really are – warts and all? Next week, Rich and I are meeting my sisters at that artificial lake. Like millions of Americans, we’ll talk about the old days, make new memories together, and celebrate the fact we managed to do it all without the help of Mr. Spiffy and his software.
Is a family gathering part of your summer? I'd love to hear more about it in the comments below!
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and currently visiting my home state of California.
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