Monday, June 27, 2005

All relative

Spent time this weekend trekking to Iowa for a family reunion. Left D. home to ostensibly work on the farm, but actually to avoid going to a 1) hot place to 2) make small talk with 3) people he doesn’t really know—three things he can live happily without.

Some families reunion in exotic spots—they travel to Las Vegas, or a theme park, or a resort, and travel about in packs with matching shirts boasting, “The ____ family reunion.” Not us. For about 30 years we have been gathering (approximately) annually at the home of whatever cousin in Iowa has agreed to host 70-80 people who share the same set of grandparents (and little else). Actually, Iowa is not a bad spot for the occasion—many of the regulars live in the area (including my parents, sister, and brother); this year, we had a New York cousin and a couple Atlanta ones attend. No one from the California branch ever appears, but Christmas letters keep us updated.

I have approximately 25 first cousins on my dad’s side, and due to some bizarre birth patterns (Dad was born about 20 years after his older brother and sister), many cousins are more like aunts & uncles to me, while their children are my age. Although they aren’t even her blood relatives, Mom is the keeper of family tree data, and spent part of Saturday getting current and accurate birth and marriage dates for her permanent record. One cousin (who died last year, and was also only in the family by marriage) had a pretty elaborate computerized family tree, but his program didn’t include month/day, only the year. How lame is that?!

We are a pretty congenial group. While there have been the occasional nasty spats (mostly among siblings and related to money), no large arguments have split the family. As a group we’ve handled illness and death, absorbed our share of divorces/remarriages/stepchildren, and managed the annual updating of everyone’s lives. No one has shown up with a same-sex partner, but maybe that’s because it’s, well, Iowa. (My dad did tell me recently that my 50-ish, odd, never-married cousin has a “male friend” that he spends a lot of time with; Mom jumped in to say that well, they are JUST FRIENDS. Loosen up, guys.)

Because she lives in the area, my sister is pretty much expected to show. Her family often arranges vacation to coincide with the reunion in order to avoid attending. On the other hand, I get brownie points for showing up, since I have to travel. I was the one who was pretty vocal several years ago about the absurdity of having a gathering on SUNDAY afternoon—great if you’re a farmer and live nearby, crappy if you actually want anyone from out of town to show up. I try to attend every other year; largely, it pleases my dad to see me maintain these ties.

If “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” then the family reunion is the place where, if you show up with a dish to pass, they have to be nice to you.