Every year my wife and I attend two family reunions, both of them on her side. My family reunited exactly once about thirty years ago at some public park two hours away from home, where two cousins and I were the only attendees under 35, and the overall average age was somewhere in the lower 60s. That trivia and the crushing boredom are the only takeaways I remember. If they ever attempted an encore, I wasn’t informed. I’m fine with never knowing.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover, we shared photos from the 2016 edition of Anne’s dad’s side’s reunion, once again held the Sunday after Labor Day at the exquisitely sylvan, rugged, sprawling, visually arresting Turkey Run State Park in western Indiana. It’s a compromise between us central-Indiana Hoosiers and a healthy, distant branch of cousins and cousin-like hangers-on who live out in eastern Illinois. It’s a bit of a drive for all of us from our respective directions, but everyone agrees it’s pretty and non-boring.
This past weekend was the other reunion.
Pictured above is the same community room that her mom’s side rents every year for the obligation, attached to the back of a small-town volunteer firehouse. The room has folding tables, metal chairs, a kitchen that I’m not sure we’re allowed to use, and pretty much nothing else. Its primary advantages over Turkey Run are the shorter drive and extra bathroom stalls. Outside is the gravel parking lot, a grassy field, and a featureless small town. I have no idea if some older relative has connections to the local citizenry or if someone once got a sweet deal through the PennySaver classifieds, but I suspect the real reason it’s held there is because That’s The Way We’ve Always Done It, usually one of the least convincing reasons to do anything a certain way ever.
For our elders this reunion is a chance to enjoy a pitch-in, hang out with folks they haven’t seen since the last reunion, gab and gab and gab, take five thousand new family photos, and leave the Wolfram & Hart White Room only for cigarette breaks. For us mid-range adults it’s somewhere we can have adult conversations if we didn’t bring any distracting kids with us. For kids it’s less fun than a dentist’s waiting room, which would at least have marked-up copies of Highlights Magazine for entertainment. In an astounding first, this year we could detect a faint 4G connection if we went outside. Inside, we used to be able to piggyback on the firehouse Wi-Fi if we stood in the far corner of the room near their office, but this year someone in IT rigged them some password protection. Jerk.
I noticed a few kids brought electronic devices to amuse themselves, with or without internet. A couple others just ran around like headless chickens. At some point they went outside to play soccer using a half-empty, tightly shut, 21-ounce bottle of pop as their ball. One baby just lay there like a slug. It was his only defense.
This young man has been, shall we say, thinking outside the box since 2014.
I’m not in charge of either gathering, but if someone forgot to check qualifications and appointed me Ruler of the Reunion…well, since they’re more my wife’s family than mine and I can only risk so much alienation, more than likely we’d run it as a Cyrano de Bergerac scenario where I’m the mouthpiece proclaiming her stately decrees as she makes them up. Among the sweeping changes we’d recommend or just make over everyone’s baffled objections:
1. Hold the reunion someplace where more than one generation actually wants to go. A white room without padded walls wouldn’t make most people’s Top 1000 suggestions. Turkey Run isn’t Indiana’s only state park. I’d love to see others. Or some other sort of place with, y’know, features.
2. Avoid schedule conflicts with better, more popular events. This one we actually tried this year. In previous years the bottle-episode reunion was held in early August, when school started in many districts and the Indiana State Fair is in full swing, with elephant ears and concerts and carnival death rides and whatnot. By popular dissent the 2016 edition was moved to mid-September, when nothing happens anywhere, autumn pumpkin harvest activities are weeks away, and movie theaters are filled with tepid major-studio leftovers. Attendance literally more than doubled, despite knowing what was in store.
3. Encourage creativity with the pitch-in. (Or “pot luck” in some states. Consult your local youngsters for the current term for “everyone bring a dish”.) The reunion is no place for the snobby gourmet, but there’s room for improvement nonetheless. You can always count on plenty of pies and other desserts, usually a mix of home-baked and store-bought, but you’d be surprised how dull an all-pie pitch-in can get. No, really. Not everyone can afford to bring a lavish main course, but I die a little inside if the bags of Ruffles and Doritos outnumber the meats.
This year saw a delightful selection of casseroles (cornbread! green bean! cheesy broccoli! non-Kraft macaroni!) and a salad topped with jicama (which we know largely from Chopped and give a hearty thumbs-up), but the only meats were an above-average meat loaf (still very warm!), a pan of sliced sausage soaked in baked beans (surprisingly hot), and several buckets of drive-thru chicken, many of which didn’t weather the long drive too well. Protip: “Cold KFC is awesome!” said no one ever, except poor college students, who generally skip reunions because (a) they’re away at campus for the semester, or (b) ewwwww, the olds.
So if someone treats the family to an unusual winner of a recipe or anything you haven’t seen before in a setting with less than four stars, compliment the heck out of it. Beg them to keep thinking like that every year. Hold a cooking contest and give them some of your possessions as incentive. Whatever it takes.
4. Send invitations in multiple formats, not just the one you prefer. Postal delivery works fine for the retirees and for anyone who considers election muckraking flyers the pinnacle of their weekdays, so don’t leave them out or else risk their stamp-loving wrath. But a lot of us are jacked in to those weird ethereal social networks you’ve heard bad things about on Dateline NBC. We’ll remember appointments such as reunions 500% better if you contact us en masse via our space gadgets. If you’re unsure how this frightening and confusing communication tool works, ask a small child to create a Facebook event for all of you. (It’s okay to leave out Twitter. No one talks to their own family there. Frankly, that’s where we go to hide from many of them.)
5. Do something expressly for the kids. ANYTHING. Adults look forward to discussion groups with other adults and expect little more. Many kids benefit from personal engagement, some sort of activities aimed at their level, whether sports or games or whatever. Past reunions have been temporarily enlivened by stuff such as a cheap plastic horseshoe kit and a cornhole set, though the novelties have worn thin in recent times. My wife likes to aim at them on a non-physical level, holding prize drawings for gift cards or — her personal favorite — filling glass jars with candies and giving them away to the kid who comes closest to guessing the correct number. We’ve demonstrable evidence these go over well with the adults, too.
If you’re leaving the kids to fend for their own states of mind, don’t be surprised if they cry from sheer boredom or injure each other while trying to cure it. If your plans for “activities” include lots of talking to them or just acting like that’s their parents’ job and not your problem as showrunner, then you’re just mean and have forgotten childhood.
5. Keep the elderly included and supervised. They’re 1000 times happier to be there than the kids are, but don’t ignore them and don’t assume they’re keeping themselves busy at all times. A few may drift off into space in their own little corner if the under-50 crowd gets too self-involved. Say hi. Sit through a war story or two. Nod and smile politely whenever they name-check relatives who are complete strangers to you or possibly imaginary. Check their pulse as needed. Appreciate them and their storied history because if they were never born, many other people at this same reunion wouldn’t have been either, possibly the people who cooked all the best food. But if they bring up politics, it’s legally permissible to grab another relative and use them as a human shield to cover your escape.
7. Formality = death. At the Turkey Run reunion, we all show up, we say a blessing before the meal, we dig in, and then whatever happens happens till we all get exhausted and drift away. Some reunion runners prefer a more structured, businesslike setup with careful recordkeeping, a reading of last year’s minutes, a solicitation of new motions, a recounting of births and deaths and family changes, a review of budgetary matters, open filibustering over the next year’s date selection, and more dry chit-chat of the style that usually goes best with neckties and suit jackets, all tokens of the complete opposite of fun family gatherings. It’s a pitch-in. Loosen up. Bring the Frisbee; leave the gavel.
8. Don’t monopolize everyone’s time. Talent-show performances should be brief, no two-hour concerts or three-act plays. Speeches should be fifty words or less, or else gonged right off the stage. When it’s Group Photo time, think in advance how best to arrange it so all the scrapbookers and photo collectors (e.g. my wife) get all the shots and combinations they’d like without browbeating everyone, holding us captive like it’s a three-hour $2000 wedding photo shoot, and making life uncomfortable for the several who hate having their photo taken. Get the shots you need and get them out.
9. No utensils left behind. Someone always forgets their serving spoon or fork or whatever when they leave. If you see a lone food tool lying around after most of the dishes have been removed, check with the remaining crowd and make a good-faith attempt to locate the owner. If no one claims it, it’s yours by divine reunion right. Don’t just leave it there and hope it finds a good home. That’s tacky, and against the rule in some parks. Also, don’t do like we did — pick up an abandoned set of greasy tongs, toss them in the box with your reunion materials, and forget them till the next year’s reunion. That…was gross.
10. If anyone promises to send copies of their photos to everyone else later, enforce the promise. Don’t make my wife have to hunt them down. Because she will.