Thursday, August 27, 2009

Memories To Last a Lifetime







Reunions....just the word conjures up so many thoughts. Fun, family, food, kids, rekindled friendship, love,happiness, smiles, great photos, new babies, games, old stories, and so much more. Sometimes there are mixed memories of other kinds too- sadness, regret, being thankful and even some tears.

Early in 2006, I decided to organize a family reunion of family from my Dad's side of the family. My Grandmother, Opal Gardner Coleman, had come from a large family of 15 children from the Westerville/Broken Bow area of Nebraska. All the children of this family stayed very close through out the years and the many descendants also were a close knit family. Lots of the cousins have been lucky enough to keep in touch over those years. It had been a long time since we had all been together however, so it was time to get something organized. At the onset of this undertaking, I did not have knowledge of several future happenings but looking back, I don't think I would have changed a thing anyway. Life must be lived with the always positive outlook of "looking forward". I believe that is what makes us special- our ability to dream and hope for something better to come.

At the time I began to organize my reunion, my brother Dick, was fighting colon cancer along with some other ailments but he was still working every day that he could at his job. As hard as it was, it helped to keep him going forward in his life. When I announced to him and his wife that I was planning the reunion, his response was somewhat unexpected: "he didn't want anything to do with it and would not be coming". His wife and I are very close as sisters-in-law go. She is a professional genealogist with 50 years under her belt and we travel together and blog together as The You Go Genealogy Girls. We were both surprised as my brother had always been close to family and enjoyed such things. We knew it was his illness causing him to have no interest and to be even somewhat put-out about the whole thing, but I went ahead with the reunion plans for the summer of 2007.

Planning a big reunion is a massive undertaking to say the least. Mine was planned and executed over almost a year and a half. I rented a big family hall at Chadron State Park in northwest Nebraska. It had a large central gathering area, kitchen and patio which was great. Meals were planned for 75 people for the three day weekend. Kitchen help was arranged and several of my great family members "pitched" right in and helped when they arrived. I supervised! There were also activities there for all the kids. Swimming pool, hiking, riding and games. I also reserved a block of the bungalow cabins there for all the families. Letters went out to known family to gather addresses for others. Over the next year, I sent periodical letters and reminders about the upcoming event with plans and cabin information etc. No matter where we had planned it, it would have meant travel for some, so I tried to pick a fun location for all. Another project that I started was collecting photos and the genealogy of the ancestors of my Dad's family. I did the same for all the descendants of the original 15 children of Willis David Gardner and Effie Mae Copsey Gardner. Luckily I had two great family historians to help with that task. My ultimate goal was a family book for all to take home. The book began to take shape and reservations had begun to come in. I was both tired and excited for the big day to come. Brother still was not very receptive of the reunion but his wife, Ruby, and I continued to work on the book, hoping he would warm up to the idea.

My brother's health had begun to decline badly in early 2007 and he had made plans to finally retire from a long career in banking. At the same time my other brother's wife became gravely ill and was hospitalized in Rapid City. The plans for the reunion were moving along but I had reservations about going ahead with it because of the seriousness of the health of both my loved one's . My sister-in-law told me she thought that I should go ahead as we did not know what would happen in the family. My husband also wanted me to go through with the plans, even knowing that some of the immediate family may not be able to attend. It was a hard decision to make at the time but we did decide to go forward with plans. The reunion was only about 2 months away at that time. All of a sudden, my brother decided the reunion was a great idea and he began to look forward to coming. We all knew that his health was bad and it would be difficult for him to come, but he was excited for it and that was great. I, for one, hoped all my close family could be there.

Three weeks before the big day: my sister-in-law who had been ill in Rapid city for weeks, was brought home and she passed away here in Alliance. It was a sad time, of course and I knew that brother, Bill would probably not want to come to the reunion so soon after. At the same time my brother, Dick, found that his cancer had spread and he retired early from his job. He went to Omaha for treatments and it was doubtful that he and Ruby would be able to come to the reunion, but small miracles sometimes show themselves in the face of adverse times.

Our reunion was to go on and my brother, Dick, recovered enough to make the trip. June 15th, Father's Day, rolled around and the reunion was on in full force. I got Dick and Ruby a small cabin with a pretty little deck looking over one of the pine tree canyons in Chadron State Park.
He seemed to enjoy the view and the little "roughing it" cabin. He said he had not stayed in a place like that since growing up and camping with family and it had brought back many good childhood memories to him. Families began to show up and set up housekeeping in the cabins and the park campgrounds while I worked on the meals and entertainment at the big hall. We had family that came from several places within Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, Texas, South Dakota, and even New York! Our party was in full swing by the first night. We all gathered, had a buffet style meal, and got reacquainted. It was fun and the weekend promised to be a fun one! Saturday was greeted with coffee and rolls for all and a noon buffet was served again. The hall was perfect for a huge long table area and plenty of room to visit and share stories. The kids found lots of entertainment both inside and out with games, swimming and playing ball. I devised a fun question, riddle, and answer game involving facts about people and they all had to write their answers as to who in the family they thought it was. It was lengthy and took several hours to complete but it was fun for all and the winners got take home some of the table centerpieces for their patios. We also had old photos to look at and some to try and identify. My family book, RELECTIONS- The Descendants of W. D. and Effie Gardner ended up to be 400 pages of easy to read genealogy, family recipes, and hundreds of photos and was a big hit. THAT was a massive undertaking to design and self print, but everyone loved it and conversation over the book sparked many stories and memories. ( I am so proud of my book, but after 60 copies,and still counting, would never recommend anyone to self print such a project!) Saturday evening we had a surprise "retirement" cake and honored my brother, Dick, for his many years of serving the public in his banking career. He loved getting to see all the family and it was the first time, in a long time that he, Ruby, and his two children got to be together as a family. Tears were plentiful with us all, knowing his career had ended and also recognizing his health condition.

Sunday, Father's Day, and our last day of the reunion. Our family is home to at least two ministers of the gospel and several others who are well versed in such matters! We had a sweet, short prayer service in memory of our ancestors and to honor all our Dads who were in attendance at the reunion. My other brother did decide to come, along with one of his sons and grandsons. He too, enjoyed being with family. I knew he was deep in grieving with the recent loss of his wife but he said afterwards that he was glad he had come and enjoyed being with all the family on a happy occasion. After another great meal, we all said our goodbyes and began the trips towards home.

Are reunions worth all the work? Absolutely, no matter what it takes and no matter the circumstances. Ours was great. I hope my family still thinks of it fondly, as I do. My brother, Dick, passed away from the ravages of cancer just one week after our reunion. The memories are certainly bittersweet but oh so worth it!

This is a little saying that my nephew signs all his emails with. I thought it was so appropriate for a " family reunion" blog carnival. "THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS FUN FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY" (Jerry Seinfeld, actor and comedian). I respectfully disagree, any family reunion offers great fun and fond memories for ALL the family. As you may notice in some of our photos, even the adults were having FUN. Life really is what you make of it!

4 comments:

  1. If someone in my family had arranged a reunion like this, I would sooo have gone to it. I still wish someone would. Really loved reading about this reunion.

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  2. Beautiful blog Cheri! I believe the love of my life, Dick, lived long enough to attend the reunion. He had accomplished what he desired and that was to see his relatives one last time and to have our son, his fiance and our daughter all together. We were missing only one grandchild. Made the greatest of memories!

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  3. What special memories! We hosted a similar reunion in 2007 and were surprised by how many came, from all over the country. I agree, it is well worth the effort to do something like this. And that Dick was able to attend and enjoy himself was such a special bonus!

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  4. Oh, Cheri, thank you so much for sharing this story, which I read with tears in my eyes. My Dad was very involved in his annual family reunion, but declined to attend the one held during the summer before his death from kidney cancer. We attended in his place, and took home many handwritten messages for him from all his kith 'n kin. Your story brought back many memories of that final summer with Dad. Thanks again! V.

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