By T. R. Robertson
This past year, on a chilly weekend in January, my wife’s extended family and several of their friends gathered in Pittsfield, Illinois, for a memorable reunion. People drove or flew or caravanned from as far as Florida, Texas, Kansas, and Missouri. They came from metropolitan Chicago and ‘don’t blink or you’ll miss it’ Arbela. All came to see their loved ones, some of whom they hadn’t seen for years.
A Family Weekend
Over 48 hours we ate nearly every meal in a reserved room at the Cardinal Inn, trickling in from various motels and relatives’ spare rooms to share meals and to talk. We greeted each other with shameless embraces and manly handshakes. With every new arrival the children endured another round of hugs and kisses and comments about how much they had grown, suggestions to put a brick on their heads, and questions about supposed boyfriends and girlfriends.
Nearly all of the 19 cousins who used to chase one another around their grandparents’ farm were there, overjoyed to see each other again and to watch a new generation of cousins, 15 in all, chase each other in circles with shouts and laughter. They traded memories of fishing with grandpa on Lake Pittsfield, of helping him with the sheep, of sharing a bowl of Frosted Flakes (“tiger cereal”) in their grandparents’ motor home.
The older generations, the aunts and uncles and second cousins once or twice removed of those 19 cousins, talked about their own memories of life in Pike County, of friends and neighbors who had moved away, divorced and remarried, or passed on.
Trying to remember the names of six or seven dozen of my wife’s closest relatives is always daunting, but I gave it my best effort. I’ve never felt like a stranger in this crowd.
Uproarious laughter and whispered confidences mixed together as this scattered family reconnected.
Then Saturday afternoon arrived and the family pressed pause on the joyful reunion to gather in a more formal setting, dressed in more formal clothing. Time itself seemed to be suspended as we went through the afternoon’s arcane and tradition-bound ceremonies, designed to remind us of the reason for the family gathering. A visitor from a wholly different culture would be baffled and possibly disturbed by the peculiar rituals.
Friends and neighbors arrived and carried on similar conversations about the same topics the family had been discussing back at the restaurant. These conversations, though, were hushed rather than animated.
The children were perplexed when their parents and every other adult repeatedly reminded them to not chase each other in circles, to not shout, to keep their laughter in check. Instead, they wandered around the rooms, studying the somber looks on the adult faces that had been full of life the day before.
The reunion eventually shifted into slow motion, contemplating the broken body of the man at the center of their fellowship, focusing our thoughts on the legacy of the man without whom we would not be a family. We paused to ponder the death that brought us all to this place.
Death itself, usually kept carefully on the fringes of daily life, shouldered its way to the forefront and demanded to be noticed.
After the pause for remembrance, we gradually returned to our conversations, to the reunion, and the rush of life. We shook hands, hugged, strapped the kids into their car seats. We returned to the world of the living with a renewed knowledge that it’s our turn to be about the business of doing things worth remembering.
Each Sunday morning my wife and I gather with an extended family even larger than my in-laws’ tremendous tribe. We travel from all parts of our city for this weekly family reunion. Some come from upscale neighborhoods where they’ve groomed and dressed themselves in their multiple bathrooms and walk-in closets. Others have bustled through their preparations, bumping into each other in their blue-collar bungalows. Still others come from efficiency apartments, dorm rooms, and public housing complexes. Some are attired in their Sunday best—suits and ties and dresses. Others show up in business casual. Several have arrived in blue jeans and T-shirts.
All have come together to be with their family of faith.
Young adults lend a helping hand to the older family members as they cross the parking lot, talking about their aches and pains and the events of the past week. Children dash from their car seats to rendezvous with their friends, only half listening to their parents and other concerned adults as they’re warned to watch out for cars.
At the front door we greet one another warmly with handshakes and hugs, if not with an actual holy kiss.
I shake hands with one jovial fellow like I do every week. And every week I make an effort to remember his name. I’m not sure he always remembers my name either, but we’ve never felt like strangers. We’re family.
For several minutes this family reunion resembles every other reunion. We share stories about the highs and lows of our week. We talk about the things we have in common. We let ourselves get pulled into friendly debates about the issues and politics of the day. We tell a few good jokes and have an occasional belly laugh.
We talk to the children about whatever is on their minds and remind them not to run and chase each other in the church building.
At the appointed time music begins to play and we gradually, a bit reluctantly, interrupt our conversations to sing together. Some in our family prefer older songs, while others are moved more by modern sounds. But on Sunday mornings the family is united in a single purpose of praise.
And then the worship team quiets their instruments and we press pause on the more exuberant parts of the weekly reunion to participate in a more solemn shared ritual. The meal we share during this reunion is, unlike the boisterous meals of my in-laws’ gathered family, the time when we grow quiet and more serious. We attend to a set of rituals which are every bit as mysterious and tradition-bound as the funeral ceremonies we experienced with my wife’s family. Visitors from outside the culture of the church would find the next few minutes wholly absurd, even a bit morbid.
To those of us in the family, the centuries-old practices are why we are here. We turn from our joyful gathering to remind ourselves about the death of the one who makes us a family. We approach the table together and closely consider the broken body of the one we love.
Death itself, usually kept carefully on the fringes of daily life, shoulders its way to the forefront and demands to be noticed.
When the ceremony is over, we move on from the pause for remembrance, gradually returning to the conversations, the reunion, the rush of life. We shake hands and hug one another. Parents strap kids into their car seats. We return to the world of the dead with a renewed knowledge that it’s our turn be about the business of doing things worth remembering.
T. R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.