RTOERO asked me to talk to some of their members, who are mostly retired teachers and other education workers, about family reunions. Their experiences ranged from a small family dinner to a Zoom call to an event that included a float in the town parade.
Who was involved? What kind of tips would they share for reunion success? Find out in my article below, or view it starting on page 18 in the Summer 2023 issue of their quarterly magazine, Renaissance.
Family reunions are a long-standing tradition that may have new inspiration since the pandemic.
RTOERO members are happy to bring a large group of people together, the classic family reunion with potato salad and pictures in the park. But our members are just as likely to call an intimate gathering of close family a reunion.
Either way, they know the value of having someone plan ahead, take the lead and work with others to make a reunion happen.
Tip: “Get organized early and communicate with lots of lead time.”
Donelda Schwartzentruber, née Stiles, organized the first ever Stiles family reunion in 2022. The spark? Realizing her father’s family of 14 had all passed away, and she was the glue connecting the descendants.
“Many of my first cousins have no idea who some of the others are, and they’re spread out from coast to coast,” she says. “I’m the one who knows where everyone is. I thought, if I don’t connect them, who will?”
In mid-2020, Schwartzentruber discovered their home town of Brussels, Ontario, was holding its 150-year anniversary on the Civic Holiday weekend in 2022. She had already been working on the Stiles family tree, so had email addresses and details of births, marriages and deaths. It seemed the perfect time to gather the family.
She met with about seven other cousins to plan the reunion. On the outskirts of Brussels, she found and booked a hall with a kitchen, a ball diamond and an area for barbecuing. Visitors were responsible for their own accommodation.
The event drew 64 people from across Canada. Games for kids included baseball, tag and throwing hoops over bottles. People could guess how many jelly beans were in a jar, and prizes went to family who came the farthest distance or whose birthday was closest. Adults assembled a float for the town parade and contributed food for lunch. Some toured the Stiles family home. All received a detailed family tree Schwartzentruber had created.
“Afterwards, my Mom said, ‘Donelda, this needs to become a yearly thing,’” Schwartzentruber says.
Tip: “Be flexible and ask for help from other family members.”
Carolyn Gotay revived a dormant family tradition with a Zoom reunion early in the pandemic.
She knew one arm of her family had regularly held a reunion when her mother was a child. The Imhof family originally came from Germany and settled in Pennsylvania with other German-speaking immigrants. Gotay’s grandfather, Adam, was the oldest of six siblings. As the years went by and the “Stupendous Six” passed away, the reunions petered out.
“Then my cousin Cathy, my sister Pam and I connected on 23andMe,” Gotay says. The reunion in Pennsylvania was back on; that is, until the pandemic scuttled the plans.
Gotay kept in touch, and the cousins worked to find relatives and gauge interest in a Zoom reunion.
“We didn’t have a list of email addresses, but I’m a researcher and used to ferreting out information,” Gotay says. “Pam is great at networking, and Cathy was in touch with a lot of the family. Together, we came up with a good roster of relatives of our generation and our parents’ generation.”
They booked a Zoom call for 1.5 hours. They used SurveyMonkey to gather “fun facts” about people, and came up with 10 questions to get the conversation going, like who was named after the original six and who played an instrument.
“We ended up with 25 participants,” Gotay reports. “We connected a lot of people who had never met, and others who hadn’t seen one another for a long time. People shared memories and we learned about traditions our mother had told us about, like Moravian sugar cake. It turned out even more fun than Pam, Cathy and I had hoped.”
Reunions don’t have to be big to be meaningful, but the same principles of looking for opportunities to meet and planning ahead apply.
Tip: “Don’t be worried if someone doesn’t show up, and always expect someone not invited to be there.”
Agnes Sebastian had a small in-person gathering in June 2022. Her son Tristan lives in B.C. and was going to be home for a week, so Sebastian planned ahead. She hosted 22 family members for dessert and coffee, setting up both inside and outside.
She also took the lead on a cousins reunion in the summer of 2021. She was born in Austria, and a cousin was visiting from Vienna. While the family was in town, Sebastian invited all the cousins in Canada to a barbecue.
She ended up with 16 people, from Vancouver Island, Toronto, Waterloo and Vienna. Local guests were invited to bring chairs and an appetizer or dessert. They set up outside Sebastian’s home for a casual area to connect and chat.
“What makes reunions memorable is getting people to talk,” Sebastian says. “Sometimes to get people mingling, I’ll ask someone to come and help me, and then they can go back to the group and talk to others.”
Tip: “Don’t refuse help; you don’t have to do everything.”
Honey Thomas also considers a “reunion” to be a small gathering of friends or family who “rejoice at the opportunity to see one another.” In her case, a recent joyous occasion was introducing her new granddaughter to her cousins on Boxing Day 2022.
“There were eight of us, including the newborn, and we all took turns holding the baby,” Thomas says. “This was also our Christmas/Chanukah get-together. We typically do elements from all the ethnic backgrounds in the family: German, French, English, Ukrainian, Polish, Jamaican, Jewish – so the children will know and love all their background.”
Family meals are normally potluck, or they order in. The family will all pitch in, the older grandkids set the table, and various people do cleanup together. Children may watch a movie later, or play board games that they set up to teach the others after dinner.
Thomas adds, “Don’t kill yourself preparing a gourmet feast so that you’re too tired to enjoy it — people are there for each other, not to be part of a House & Garden spread. Keep it simple. It’s family, not the Queen!”
See more tips from RTOERO members and a brief note about Canada’s longest consecutively running family reunion, which has taken place on the third Saturday of every June since 1898, in Renaissance.