Thursday, August 5, 2010
Family reunions seem to be going the way of the handwritten letter. In today's fast-paced world, we are much more likely to dash off an email or update our Facebook status or even "tweet" in 140 characters or less what mundane thing we are doing at that very moment.
Kids send hundreds - even thousands - of texts a month, sometimes texting their friend who is sitting across the room. They wouldn't think about picking up a pen and paper and actually scratching words on a page (unless forced to write a thank you note to the grandparents).
Family reunions are equally rare, kind of like the drought of time between getting a personal letter in the avalanche of bills and credit card offers that cram the mailbox. With families scattered across the country, reunions just don't seem to be a priority anymore.
When the matriarch and the patriarch of the family die, reunions often die with them. Families are like ripples in a pond. Once you get further from the center, the ripples drift further and further away.
And once you skip a year or two, it's harder and harder to get people coming back.
This past Sunday, I went to a family reunion of my Neelly and Denton relatives, my mother's ancestors. I don't think we had gathered since my Grandpa Neelly's 100th birthday party in 2004.
It was nothing like the family reunion pictured in the photo at the top of this post. My mom thinks that reunion was in the mid-1940s. It was at my Grandma and Grandpa Neelly's home, and my mom remembers having picnic tables set up in their yard.
I marked my mom and her parents, but it's probably hard to see. My mom is the little dark-haired girl, 5th from the left on the second row (You can probably see where I wrote the text, even if you can't read it.) Her mom is over her left shoulder (your right, when looking at the photo). And my Grandpa Neelly is at the upper left of the photo.
Flash forward to the Neelly-Denton Reunion 2010: Yes, there were plenty of photos taken. Those digital images will soon be appearing in my email in-box, according to the reunion organizers.
But there were also plenty of differences.
Instead of a bevy of mischievous little children covering their faces for the dreaded photograph back in the 1940s, there were only a few families who were young enough to have small children. At age 53, I was one of the "youngsters."
In the 1940s photo, all the women and little girls were in dresses and the men in dark pants and white shirts. Sunday's attire was much more casual.
Instead of a picnic lunch with each mother outdoing herself with her best pie or cake or secret fried chicken recipe, Sunday's meal was catered.
This is a photo of the remaining Neelly first cousins. When I counted, I was a little surprised to count 10 people. Ironically, that's the number of children born to Charley and Ethel (Denton) Neelly. (My mom is the one in the black and white blouse on the back row.)
My grandpa Shelby was the 2nd of the 10 children. I guess that's another difference for reunions today. It's just not as big a crowd when families of today more commonly have the statistical 2.2 children each.
I remember Neelly reunions when I was a kid. They were often held at my Great-Grandma's house. (My great-grandpa died when my mom was in high school, so I never knew him.)
It was great fun to get together with cousins who I saw only once a year. I also remember going to Johnson family reunions at the Macksville City Park, the screen door slamming behind us as we ran in and out from the food tables to the playground equipment or went to explore the band shell.
By the time I finished with a church obligation Sunday, I missed one of the cousins who I always enjoy seeing. She had already been there and gone.
But I did get to see Brenda, who was in my sister Lisa's class in school as well as one of her best friends from childhood.
Brenda is the daughter of Oric, the youngest of the 10 children born to Charley and Ethel. She grew up in the family farmhouse where Charley and Ethel raised their brood. Brenda's parents - Oric and Opal - still live there today.
I'd forgotten a family story about that house until I was looking in memory books my mom made for my kids.
In 1903, Charley purchased the home place where the house still stands. At the time of purchase, a small 3- or 4-room house was on the property. As the family grew, they needed a much larger house. In 1920, a house was moved 5 1/2 miles from southwest Stafford County to the homestead in northwest Pratt County.
The house was pulled on small wheels and skids by teams of horses. My Grandpa Neelly was 16 at the time and helped drive the horses. He said it was very sandy in places, and they had trouble getting through. They also had to cross a bridge over the Rattlesnake Creek.
When they got to the location, the house was pulled onto the foundation and cut apart in the middle. Then half the house was pulled to the other end of the foundation. A carpenter built the center section, connecting the two halves, both upstairs and down.
When it was finished, they had an 11-room house big enough to house their 10 children.
Family reunions give us a chance to reconnect. They give us a chance to tell and retell the old stories to people who knew us back before we were mothers and fathers, before we were grandmothers and granddads.
When my mom talks to her cousin Carmen, they see beyond the outside package and remember the little girls they once were, taking time out from their play to get photographed in 1940s black and white.
When her cousin Linda comes to stay for a few days, they find that common ground formed by a common history, even though Linda now lives halfway across the country in a big city and my mom lives a few miles from where that 1940s family reunion photo was taken.
Family reunions give us that touchstone to the past.