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.
Of course, that might not be adequate for serious offenses such as abuse. But Morley-Ball says that because one of the purposes of reunions is to help people define their place and role in the family, reunions can actually be a powerful event for sufferers of abuse—provided they are far enough along in their healing. She says it can be a way to say to a past abuser, “I am unmoved and undaunted.” For people open to such a potential confrontation, she helps her clients map out a strategy to protect themselves in an emotionally charged environment.
Sometimes issues in a family have more to do with finances than family relations. Event planner Trevoir Hudson, of Trevoir Events in Riverdale, Ga., says his philosophy is: “If I can deal with someone at the job, I can deal with my family.” His family meets in Charleston, S.C., every fifth year during the second weekend of August. The family hosted nearly 400 members in 2005.
This year, he says, the recession is taking a toll on the family. “Some want to come at the last minute, while others have an a la carte outlook on the family reunion fee. We tell them it’s one price for everything if you come or not. Most of the time it is a joyous occasion.”
For family members who cannot afford the fee for their large family, Hudson said, concessions are made which allow them to bring food or dessert for the Sunday dinner, which is usually held at a local church. Or they can help with the cleanup afterward.
The key, he said, is having built-in solutions for all the different personality types involved. Find tasks to give the bossy family members something to control. Put in place a discreet buddy system to keep family members who tend to drink too much in check.
No matter how much advance planning you do, chances are something unexpected will jump off at your family reunion this summer. But it’s all about perspective. Go in with a positive outlook and Uncle Junior’s embarrassing outburst might become a cherished funny moment that you and your second cousins once removed can laugh over for years to come.
And in between the drama and buffet tables with five kinds of potato salad (none of them particularly good), you are sure to hear a few priceless nuggets of family history, those facts that help you better understand your family’s history—and, ultimately, better understand yourself.
So stop fretting. Just pay the registration fee, send your updated information to the family historian and get with your people!
Ingrid Sturgis teaches New Media at Howard University.