Smoothing The Road To A Family Reunion

When I set out in early 1994 to instigate the first gathering of my extended family in 20 years, I had no idea what I was getting into or that it would take more than three years to pull off. Fortunately, it was well worth the effort.

For some folks, planning a family get-together amounts to arranging an annual picnic in a park or holiday party at someone's house. Organizing a gathering of the Kerwin clan is a bit more complicated. My father's family, numbering well over 200, is scattered from Maine to Texas to California to Montana. (My mother has one living relative, who joined us. I guess that made it the Haggarty family reunion, too.) So I was delighted that our August shindig drew 142 family members from 15 states to the Illinois Beach Resort & Conference Center on Lake Michigan.

If you want to orchestrate such a gathering, start early, and assume everything will take far longer than you think. Collect money for a fund to cover outlays for postage, deposits for group meals, photography, or other expenses. We didn't, and had to rely on individuals to front this cash.

And don't try to go it alone. I had two co-chairs who each handled big chunks of the work and provided me with advice and comfort. Enlist help from different branches of the family to broaden support for the event.

Above all, be flexible. Know what you can control--and what you can't. In my case, the latter was headed by United Parcel Service, the weather, and my relations. The snazzy T-shirts a cousin designed spent the entire reunion trapped in a UPS warehouse, hostages of the Teamsters strike. We couldn't do anything about the rain that pelted the first half of our three-day gathering, either. But good spirits prevailed. The golfers putted away undeterred, the outdoor kids' games moved to the indoor pool, and the sun came out just in time for the softball melee.

As for my relatives, leading them was like herding cats. Knowing they were highly enthusiastic but averse to written replies kept me from panicking when RSVPs barely trickled in. I also knew I could count on them to shoulder lots of last-minute tasks.

Picking a place to gather was my biggest challenge. It was tricky finding somewhere affordable for young families with four or more children, yet up to the standards of the older generation. Also, some popular spots require as much as five years' advance notice to book a large group during the summer, when it was most convenient for us to meet. (If you can stage your reunion during the off-season, your options multiply.)

The Internet proved to be a gold mine of fresh ideas. A few posts to travel bulletin boards yielded suggestions for locales where netizens had attended weddings, reunions, or conventions--including college dorms that can be rented in the summer. I also found publications, such as Reunions magazine. We ran through a long list of resorts, camps, and conference centers before hitting on Illinois Beach State Park in Zion, an hour north of Chicago. The lodge there, closed for six years, was being renovated, and we swooped in as soon as it began taking reservations. For the budget-conscious, the state park campground and a motel were nearby.

The Internet came in handy again as the planning dragged on. Regular intra-kin communication is crucial to building support for the big event. But mailings (even after my mother put the 60-address list on her PC) were time-consuming and expensive, so we used them only to inform the clan of the final plans. E-mail--with 30 people eventually online--was cheap, speedy, and encouraged prompt responses.

PLAYTIME. Once you know where you're going, you should plan what you're going to do when you get there. Our committee proposed activities culled from past gatherings: softball, a family Mass, singalongs. Others came up with new ideas that were big hits: a crafts morning for kids and a genealogy session to spur interest in our common ancestry. An evening of skits and song parodies unleashed amazing creativity.

Before everyone departs, be sure to convene a meeting to plan the next reunion. Decide how soon you want to get together again, and if possible, choose where. Most important, elect someone as coordinator. I was heartened during our meeting--as adults debated whether to reunite in three years or five--when the kids sitting in front shouted "Next year! Next year!" We'll meet again in 2000 or 2001. Best of all, someone else is planning it.

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