Come Together in Joyous Reunion Huge family gatherings are in again. Here's how three very different clans celebrated, plus ways to plan your own festivities.
(MONEY Magazine) – Quaint, old-fashioned and nearly as dead as the quilting bee. Until recently, that was most Americans' opinion of family reunions. But the tradition -- once thought lost as families began scattering across the country -- has been reborn. Thousands of reunions are now held each year, often drawing hundreds of attendees from across the U.S. and even from overseas. Many are repeat guests: in 1987 nearly 80% of the respondents in a Better Homes & Gardens national survey said they had gone to an average of four family reunions. Genealogists say the revival can be traced to Roots, Alex Haley's 1976 account of a black family's history that was the basis of the legendary TV miniseries seen by 130 million viewers. Haley, now 68 and still writing in Knoxville, Tenn., offers a simple reason for the appeal of reunions: ''Families come together in sadness at funerals,'' he says, ''but reunions allow for discoveries of each other that are joyous.'' Join us, then, as we visit three families coming together in joyous reunion, and read on page 136 how you can organize your own.
THE CLARKS OF TOLEDO Mom's Birthday Bash
Linking arms and swaying gently, the six grown children of Fay Clark croon, ''726 Norwood Avenue is always home'' to the tune of 2300 Jackson Street. The song was originally Michael and the other Jacksons' salute to their own family, but the Clarks' lyrics are about their former house in Toledo. Some 160 of Fay Clark's relatives are gathered at the Ohio city's Ramada Inn, reunited at a surprise party for her 66th birthday. Genuinely taken aback as she enters the crowded room, Clark spies her 96-year-old father and exclaims, ''Daddy, you didn't tell me!'' The guest of honor quickly recovers her gentle, low-key manner and takes her seat at the head table. Her sister Delores McFarland, 67, then steps up to a podium and recounts Clark's life, much of it spent as a single mother (she divorced in 1959 and never remarried) working for the U.S. Army as a civilian inventory clerk. Nowadays she's a cash manager for Hickory Farms, the food- product company. When McFarland finishes, family members come forward to offer Clark trophies, plaques, speeches and poems of tribute. (A teen-age granddaughter reads: ''I cherish every moment that we have spent together/It leaves a special warmth that remains in my heart forever.'') There are congratulations from Toledo's mayor and from Ford Motor Co., where Clark's youngest son Mike, 39, the reunion's chief organizer, has been a quality-control lab engineer for the past 17 years. Following a buffet supper of seafood Newburg, fried chicken, and apple or cherry pie, the guests boogie to the energy-charged sounds of Brenda Joy and the Beginnings, a Motown combo. Elderly relatives sitting in the back of the room renew friendships, while the small fry surround the bandstand, waiting for a chance to show their skill as rappers. At 1 a.m., seven hours after the party began, Fay Clark starts opening presents and birthday cards. One of them, along with $50, is from a Vietnamese refugee family she sponsored and housed for 18 months in 1975 and 1976. Finally at 2:15 a.m., the last of the guests straggle out. Bushed but content, Clark murmurs: ''I have a beautiful feeling inside me.'' The Clark reunion took three months to plan. Reports Mike: ''Dad died a couple of years ago, and we kids were visiting his grave last Memorial Day. I was thinking about family, and the idea came to me. I said, 'Let's give Mom an appreciation day for her birthday and invite all her kin.' My sister Irene shopped around for the hall, and my aunts and uncles gave me information on our other relatives. We traced Mom's family back to her great-grandmother, a Josephine Naudin, who was born in North Carolina in the mid-1800s.'' Mike, who learned about organizing a reunion from a library book, sent out invitations, wrote the program and lined up the band. Mike estimates that 80% of the reunion guests were from the Toledo area. His aunt Mollye Johnson traveled the greatest distance, 2,304 miles, from Stockton, Calif. ''As a little boy, Mike lived with me for a spell,'' she says, ''so I never pass up the chance to see him.'' The total cost of the Clark reunion was $5,070. The largest amount, $3,348, went to the Ramada for food ($2,691), service ($430), tax ($187) and a cash bar ($40). The manager waived rent for the ballroom because of the number of dinners served. Another $1,722 covered the band, trophies, flowers and a birthday cake. Apart from $400 contributed by his siblings, Mike Clark paid the bills. Undaunted by the expense, he says: ''We'll have the next reunion when Grandpa is 100.''
THE ESKRIDGES OF VIRGINIA Businesslike Bluebloods
Filing into the two-story, Federalist-style courthouse at Montross, Va., 65 miles northeast of Richmond, 72 descendants of George Eskridge, a lawyer who died in 1735, take seats under portraits of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. The family has ties to both men. Washington's mother was orphaned as a child and raised by Eskridge, for whom she named her son. A generation later, Eskridge's granddaughter married a Lee. This is the 42nd annual reunion -- business meeting and luncheon, really -- of the Eskridge Family Association, which claims some 530 members, mostly in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Yearly dues: $5 for couples, $3 for singles. While waiting to be called to order by ''Cousin'' Elizabeth Coiner, 84, a retired schoolteacher who has headed the association since 1957, the crowd gossips about family history. Tidbits: ''She died in 1715. Poor little thing had kidney trouble, which explains those circles under her eyes in the portraits.'' ''He went through six wives -- TB kept killing 'em off.'' In opening the two-hour proceedings, Coiner tartly puts the meeting in perspective. ''This is the year of Confucius' 2,438th birthday,'' she says, ''so we don't go back all that far.'' The treasurer, Cousin Harry Eskridge, 42, George Eskridge's great-great-great-great -great-great grandson, reports receiving $4,733 in donations and dues in the past year, and his audience nods approvingly at the news that the donations are tax deductible. But the main event is a talk by Kevin Ruffner, a George Washington University Ph.D. candidate, on researching Confederate ancestors. His chief point: begin with letters from Confederate soldiers. Responds Cousin Elizabeth: ''Mighty interesting. We've got plenty.'' She closes the program by announcing her retirement from office to write the family history and introducing the new president: Cousin Tom Steptoe, 38, a West Virginia circuit judge and father of 23-month-old Anne, the youngest -- and noisiest -- family member present. Then everyone drives five miles to Stratford Hall, Robert E. Lee's ancestral home, for lunch -- baked ham, Maryland crab and ice cream pie (cost: $10.15). Cousin Elizabeth and Cousin Bee Davison, 72, the wife of a retired Episcopal minister, organized the reunion over a leisurely six months. Costs -- $50 donated to the county for use of the courthouse, and $375 for phone calls and postage -- were covered by association funds. Many guests were new attendees, including Robert Steptoe, a West Virginia attorney, who says, ''I came because my grandfather was in the Confederate Army, and the speaker was going to talk about that.'' A few descendants remained no-show holdouts. Complains Cousin Bee Davison of her son, a Virginia lawyer, ''All I can get out of that bad boy is, 'Mama, I'll come one of these days.' ''
THE SANCHEZES OF BATON ROUGE Jamming to a Cajun Beat
Thin faces with dark hair, aquiline noses and gray-blue eyes look out of photos, some antique and some contemporary, on the walls of the volunteer firehouse in Ascension Parish, La. (pop. 59,000). Relatives with faces like those in the pictures identify the subjects: ''There's Grandma Poche % (pronounced poe-shay).'' ''Here's Pierre's son Alcide.'' ''That's Uncle Paul, who married Victoria LeBlanc.'' For the second year in a row, descendants of Pedro Sanchez have come together to celebrate their heritage. Born in the Canary Islands in 1743, Sanchez settled in Louisiana in 1778 as a member of a Spanish army unit. In 1868 his great-grandson took a bride of French descent, introducing a Gallic strain that gradually became dominant as later generations also married French-Americans. Most of the roughly 545- member family still live around Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and now the firehouse is filled with boisterous shouts of recognition in their distinctive part-French, part-southern Creole accents. Everyone has brought a covered dish, and the table is loaded with platters of fried chicken, crawfish, potato salad, yams, gumbo, cakes and pralines. At the door, reunion organizer Dot Bourdier, 63, hands newcomers name tags as other guests film the crowd with camcorders. A group gathers at a genealogical chart that traces the family back to Spain. Mothers take snapshots of babies held by family matriarch Edna Parker, 87, of Baton Rouge, while husbands slip out to the parking lot to enjoy a lite beer. At noon, the parish priest pronounces benediction (''We share the Sanchezes' gratitude to God for allowing them to come together''), and the 211 guests form a chow line. When the meal ends, Bourdier introduces guests representing the family's branches, who bow bashfully or with mock flourishes while their kinfolk jest about them sotto voce (''We call her 'the Mouth of the South.' '' ''And there's 'Limpin' Lena,' with her lazy walk''). Then a band of professional musicians, all Sanchez family members, rocks into the Cajun tune My Toot-Toot. For the rest of the afternoon the crowd whoops, stomps and twists to golden oldies, from Jambalaya to the New Orleans anthem When the Saints Go Marching In. Four hours later, as the attendees climb into their minivans and pickups, one guest shakes his head and declares: ''This was a good ol' country family reunion.'' The Sanchez gathering grew out of Bourdier's interest in genealogy, which she took up in 1987 after being forced to retire from her job as a commissioned salesperson at Sears when cortisone treatment for an allergy left her crippled and on crutches. ''I got three cousins involved in helping, and we decided on the spur of the moment to hold a reunion,'' she says. ''It was just a get-acquainted thing, with no formal program and a bring-your-own ! lunch. We spent $250 to rent an American Legion hall.'' The cousins were floored when 250 people turned up in response to the 100 invitations they had mailed out. This year the cousins issued invitations two months before reunion day and persuaded another cousin, J.C. Sanchez, to arrange for a band. The honor of traveling the farthest to the reunion went to David McKee of Dallas, 417 miles away -- ''my first cousin's grandson,'' says Dot proudly, ''and one of three relatives that I'd never met before.'' Costs totaled a mere $225: $150 to rent the firehouse and $75 for incidentals like paper plates and trash bags. Says Bourdier: ''Six of us put up $25 each, and volunteers gave the rest. We're informal about money -- we get together to have fun.''