Dreading Your Family Reunion?

The Root offers tips to help you cope with bad potato salad and cousins you’d rather not know.

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I should have known our efforts at family reunions were in trouble when members of the New York chapter of my family decided to boycott the reunion over a minor family dispute the year we planned it in New York. As the host family that year, we kept having to explain to visiting relatives why two of my aunts who lived in New York didn’t come. Then there was the cousin who kept berating us as if we were the hired help because her family was not able to sit together at dinner.

The last straw was at the reunion in Charlotte, N.C., in 1993 where that same rude cousin greeted latecomers who had traveled from out of state by telling them that they couldn’t have a seat at the Saturday family din ner because they paid their dues too late. Even after we made arrangements to seat everyone, that irate faction decided to dine instead at the hotel restaurant.

Sound familiar? Reunion planners say the problems my family faced are not uncommon. Contentious kin, deep, dark family secrets and other issues are bound to arise whenever families get together. And just because people are related doesn’t mean they have anything (besides blood) in common. The chances of just simply not liking a significant percentage of relatives at your reunion is fairly high. But there are plenty of coping strategies and tools to make sure that your next  reunion will not be the last.

Askhari Johnson Hodari, author of The African Book of Names, said that her family addressed the stress by creating a family constitution. The document includes a pledge and a code of conduct spelling out how everyone in the family should treat each other. It also has rules for where and when the reunion is held, how often and how much dues are. The family-reunion structure includes a president and treasurer.

Hodari, who lives in Birmingham, Ala. and now acts as the family historian, also said her family has a council of elders to resolve disputes. “It’s the older people in the room that we listen to, and we know that. It’s certainly sexist and ageist in favor of older people,” she says. But to bring the generations together, they start by building relationships. “I got closer to my aunts and uncles when I started keeping our history. We love to talk about the history of our family and tell the story. We made everyone talk to two new people each month.”

Psychotherapist Joyce Morley-Ball, of Atlanta, aka the Love Doctor, author and host of radio and TV shows, says she helps family members prepare for the inevitable fears and insecurities that can arise around family reunions, things as haunting as incest, molestation and parental ambiguity. “I have family members fly in, and we work it out over hours or over days and deal with it before the reunion,” she says. 

Morley-Ball says some families offer a ceremony on the first night to help family members symbolically let go of old grievances. Everyone writes down a sentence that describes the anger and pain they have against someone. They then place a big X across it. Then they tear the paper up, throw it in the trash and never look back.

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