All in the family


Good intentions always begin as such, until days and weeks pass before you realize you missed your self-imposed deadline to post that oh-so-important post.

At least that’s how it feels to me. You could probably care less whether or not I bang away at my keyboard.

Anyway, FYI, I am catching up on a much-needed review of my recent family reunion. A large event with only 23 family members missing. 70 of us packed our bags and geared up for a weekend of fun and festivities in the Northwoods. Due to the sheer numbers of our family and the logistics of pulling off such a massive event, the reunion had been on the calendar for 3 years. Our family’s communication manager, my cousin, is always Johnny-on-the-spot when it comes to e-mail updates, address changes, additions to the family, and any prayer needs. Seeing her e-mails from the past few months leading up the reunion provided much anticipation for the one weekend in August when we would all converge to celebrate our family.

Since I have professional and volunteer experience working with kids, I didn’t have to twist any arms to declare myself as the “game planner.” Typically, our reunions center around talking, food, and just hanging out – swimming in a pool or lake. This year, I thought it would be fun to bring some competition and get the kids riled up (aka sugared up!). When I refer to kids, I am pointing to the offspring of my cousins, whose ages range from 1 – 18. Yikes. Stripes.

Like any good educator, I reached into the recesses of my memory for past games I have led and played. Then, I turned to Pinterest. There were plenty of amazing ideas. I took to our family e-mail system and proclaimed that games would be provided to any kids willing to get dirty, compete, and have fun. Excitement built for months. I utilized Facebook status updates, something I have decided I sounded stupid in during college, in order to generate family discussions on games and activities. I freaked out a couple times while planning the games, shocking, I know. I texted a cousin to ensure he could supply some equipment for the games. To top everything off, I elected my dad to build (I helped. A lot.) a family photo booth (Pinterest idea, naturally).

Let’s just say, it’s the most thought and prep I’ve put into a family reunion in…ever.

Let me also go on record to say, it was worth it.

In order to fully prepare for the reunion, I took PTO on Friday. I ran errands like a mad-woman in the morning. True story, I looked crazy. I hopped in the car and drove 4 hours north to a familiar place I love: Aunt’s house (where the last reunion was held, where we celebrated Thanksgiving 2011 — search past archives, and where I weathered a massive summer storm — search past archives).

I was tired from the drive, but perked up when I saw an aunt and uncle in the hotel lobby. I checked in and then rendezvous’d with my aunt and uncle for din din before we headed out to Aunt’s house.

Many family members were driving up the next day, so it was a small crowd.

My cousins were there with their kids, Aunt’s kids and grands.

There was much squealing and many hugs when little kids saw me (I say that in all humility). Even my cousin’s 11-year-old son dropped what he was doing, made some excited noise, and ran over to me for a hug. It was one of those moments I’ll remember.

Cousin B was there with his wife and kids, although his littlest was already asleep. His boy was very much awake and active, excited to have another playmate.

I put my cousin’s kids to work. They helped color in and design banners for the reunion. Already our communication manager had Facebooked to inform us of the hashtag we were required to use on Instagram and Twitter. So, her craft-loving girls helped me color signs and my 13-year-old cousin (cousin’s kid), designed the most incredible hashtag sign. She’s well on her way to becoming a graphic designer or typographer or something creative. Her ability to whip out cool block letters and then design each letter was mesmerizing for the little kids and adults, alike. I colored and orchestrated the banner making while being served fake food from the play kitchen by Cousin B’s animated son. Laughing and joking around, I was glad I had an excuse to see family pre-reunion.

I was able to spend time talking to Cousin B and his wife, separately and together, while their son brought me plastic food. We talked about their life adjustment to the South. Discussed their kids. And I was honest about where I’m at in life, where I want to be, and what I’m doing to get there. They both listened, asked questions, and agreed. It was one of those moments I’ll remember. One of those conversations where I see how much I’ve grown; unwilling to pretend “it’s all good,” able to admit that I don’t have it all figured out.

After all the kids were whisked off to bath time and bedtime, I decided it was time for me to sleep, too.

The next morning, the hotel was abuzz with guests, many of whom were my family members.

On the elevator ride to breakfast, I found two of my cousin’s kids – cousins themselves. We hugged and jumped in line for our food. After making our bagels, waffles, and dishing up other morning food items, we found more aunts and uncles sitting around tables. The two girls found their grandparents and then one of the girls’ dad’s came down. He is my cousin’s husband. A guy I’ve known for many years. He’s a big Pens fan, grew up in Pittsburgh, and is excited about Penn State joining Big 10 Hockey. Hmmmm.

Anyway, after breakfast we all headed out to Aunt’s house where the reunion officially commenced.

My dad and I finished setting up the photo booth and my cousin, back for a year from Africa with his family, helped us find the perfect trees and background for the booth. Once it was set up, I shooed people over to it for photos before we all sweated off our makeup and our hair curled in the heat.

Then. It was just a blur of hugs, hello’s, and how-are-you’s. Lots of “what are you doing now?” Many “I can’t believe how old your kids are!” Some “Where’s your sister and family?”

Kids ran around and played in a giant bounce house with an attached slide. Dream. Come. True.

Lunch was proceeded by our family tradition: praying. Not just any prayer, our prayer. A song my grandfather’s family created, or wrote, for a lack of a better word. We sing it every time we are all together. It’s ours. Unique. Special. Heartfelt. Growing up, I thought it was something every family did. It’s not. But every kid in our family learns it. There are no lyrics printed out for people to follow along. We just bow our heads and sing.

And then we eat.

Lunch discussions were continuations of earlier conversations and further discussions on life, jokes, and laughs.

I made a few announcements at lunch regarding our large group family photo and kids’ games. It’s funny, I was once told by a cooperating teacher that I talk too soft. It’s definitely not true. My voice carried over all discussions and everyone was made well aware of the upcoming afternoon plans.

I broke out the kids’ games with boys clobbering around me asking me “what’s that for?” “are we eating those?” “how do I get a donut?” “what’s the hockey stick for?” “can we be on a team?”

Organizing the games was made easier by the help of my mom, cousin’s husbands, and uncles. I enlisted their help with our first game — the donut on a string game. We hung the string with donuts from two Easton hockey sticks, courtesy of Cousin A (SIDE STORY: Cousin A’s mom and dad brought two of his old sticks from his D-1 playing days. My other cousin’s son asked if he could keep the sticks because they are lefties. He then proceeded to grill Cousin A on information regarding the sticks and asked him why he played hockey where he did. It was definitely an entertaining conversation). The kids were timed and had 1 minute to eat their donut without touching it. Mouths wide open, crumbs flying to the ground, and parents laughing, the kids jumped right in to the first game.

The rest of the games were equally entertaining for the participants and the crowd. My dad, cousin, and cousin’s husband played the Face the Cookie game.

When the games wrapped up, a mess was left in the yard and patio, but the clean up crew, my mom again, did a great job ensuring that cheeseballs and shaving cream did not become permanent fixtures in Aunt’s yard.

The afternoon was spent on the water – canoes, kayaks, pontoon, fishing boats, and a swim raft were enjoyed by kids and adults.

When evening rolled around, everyone was hungry. We did what we do and ate our food while chatting away about the day and future days. I enforced our family photo, which was quite the circus to orchestrate, but we finally got a good shot. Just one. Once the camera flashed, the little boys ran off to play. There were probably 6 individuals, including my dad and sister, who were not present for the photo. They were still out on the water. So, we took a separate one of them and I have a friend who is going to see if she can work some PhotoShop magic.

Once everyone was free to wander, we hung out around the fire pit, on the patio, and by the bounce house. I talked with many cousins and relatives I have not spent much time with in recent years. Cousin B and I watched closely as his littlest braved the bounce house and slide. I watched as Cousin B climbed up the slide to rescue her a few times. His son ran around in a Superman cape and then costume changed into PJ’s. I asked him if I should visit him in the South and he declared “YES! I have a lot of toys at my house.” It’s settled. I will visit. When it’s cold here. Otherwise, I’m told I’ll melt. And I can’t go until their house is finished. But I am going.

I talked with Cousin A and his girlfriend about life, hockey, work, and places we love. Cousin A’s girlfriend and I were standing next to Cousin A’s twin sister’s husband. We did the math and realized he’s been in the family since 1994. Three kids later, he sat in a patio chair sans kids, and talked about random topics. He quoted a TV commercial line and I was confused at the origin, he told me, “You’re not THAT young! You should know that one!” I made a reference to a popular country song playing on the radio today and he did not follow. But after some discussion he remembered that he does know that group. He then asked me a question about the shirt I was wearing and wondered if it was the cool thing to do. Talking with him, not about his kids, whom I adore, was something we used to do. Back when he was in high school and I in elementary school. Back when we’d hang out at Grandma’s house in her tiny living room.

Little kids were thrilled when S’mores fixing broke out. They ran around the yard offering already-made S’mores to their parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. Cousin A turned to his girlfriend and asked, “Do you want a S’more?” I jumped in with the oh-so-popular Sandlot line and we began quoting parts of the movie. And yes, I can quote the entire movie. Don’t. Judge. It’s a useful life skill.

The evening wound down, I’m sure many more conversations were had. We hugged goodnight and goodbye to those who were heading home.

Sunday morning we met at Aunt’s house. A small group of us for our family-style church service. We sang favorite worship songs and hymns. We shared updates on what God’s done in our lives. And we cherished the special time together. Time we understand is not to be taken for granted. There were tears. Tears of thankfulness for my parents’ health. Tears of sorrow for the loss of my cousin-in-law’s dear mother (the Pens fan). Tears for Cousin A’s mom who is battling cancer; a battle that has raged on since 1994, but is now a bit more of a bugger.

After our service, we hugged goodbye to more relatives, ate lunch, and played some more. I asked my cousin’s 3-year-old son if he’s going to play hockey this year. His response: “Yeah, first I have to play Tiny Mites, then I can be in the pros.” Watch, he will be in the pros someday.

We also watched You Tube videos. Seriously. Like a lot of us. My aunts and uncles cracked up.

Cleanup began and we wrapped the weekend up with “to-go” boxes and promises to keep in touch.

And that was it. It ended just like that. We don’t have the next reunion date set. But we will do it again.

Sunday, the day we all bid our farewells, was the 6 year anniversary of Grandma’s death. We talked about it while packing up our food and wiping down the kitchen. We remembered where we were when we heard the news. We didn’t dwell on the loss. It’s something I think we do in private, during times of reflection.

Instead, we just savored the time we had spent together. Time Grandma and Grandpa would have endorsed. Time they no longer have with us, and we no longer have with them.

I’ll be in my thirties at the next reunion. I have zero clue where I’ll be in life. I don’t know who will be present, what losses and gains we’ll have experienced as a family. But I know I’ll be there to celebrate our family.

Because to me, it’s all in the family.

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