Having just returned from a family reunion, I am taking time out to reflect on belonging.
Every three years descendants of Ronald and Alice Jeffery of Crab Orchard, Nebraska, gather for a reunion, an event officially repeated since 1983, although unofficially held when, beginning in 1940, my father drove my family from San Francisco to the Jeffery farm in Nebraska. The early reunions of my childhood cling to our memories as exciting and joyous occasions with sleep overs, picnics, fried chicken and corn on the cob, baseball on the lawn, hay loft shenanigans, Grandpa’s teasing, Grandma’s lessons on self-sufficiency, hide and seek in rows of corn, and our disobedient climbing to the top of the windmill or chasing the pigs.
The first official Jeffery reunion was held on the grounds of Crab Orchard’s Methodist Church. Reunions were held every two years until 9 years ago when it was decided thereafter reunions would be held every three years. When family numbers tripled exponentially, the necessity of meeting at a place catering to reunions convinced us to hold every subsequent reunion at YMCA of the Rockies outside of Estes Park, Colorado, near Rocky Mountain National Park, and where large reunion lodges can be rented and different age groups can choose from many activities.
Each reunion is organized by a small committee of volunteers selected on the last evening of each reunion. My family branch has organized three Jeffery reunions: in South Dakota’s Custer, at Kentucky Dam Village State Park, and at the Outer Banks in North Carolina. The Jeffery family reunion has also been held in Indian Cave, Nebraska; Ouray, Colorado; Fort Flagler State Park, Washington; Snow Mountain YMCA, Colorado; Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; Eugene Mahoney State Park, Nebraska; Whalen, Minnesota, at a resort along biking trails; and Winter Park, Colorado.
The senior men like reminiscing about when they couldn’t see their neighbors’ rooftops, an out of sight but not out of mind community. Our grandparents and their siblings lived and worked large farms in sections, their neighbors a mile distant in every direction. When someone needed help with threshing or building a barn or pulling a vehicle out of the mud, or caring for children, people showed up. The land was large but the community was tight.
Ronald and Alice Jeffery** had five children, who then produced 18 children, who then contributed an average of three children with their spouses which equals approximately 54 offspring, who then averaged three children per to yield approximately 162 children who are now developing their families. The first generation has now passed. The second generation (mine) has lost two members. The third generation, which has begun grand-parenting, now organizes the reunions, which vary in size from 80 to 150 people. Don’t worry if you can’t follow my fuzzy math.* I have trouble counting them when they are in the same room with me.
The results of all this reproduction is clearly remarkable. Although primarily white Protestants —Our ancestors immigrated in 1840 to America from Methodist John Wesley’s Cornwall, England—we are also Jewish and Catholic mixed with a couple of wanna be agnostics and atheists. We are farmers, photographers, business managers, professors, teachers, nurses, linemen, forest fighters, accountants, engineers, chemists, clerks, bankers, entrepreneurs, contractors, biologists, physicians, artists, factory workers, writers, social workers, CFO’s, technology engineers, software writers, buyers, musicians, financiers, machinists, armed service personnel, and more. We are scattered from shore to shore, sometimes living overseas. Yet we are capable and willing to blend together for this reunion,
When I drove into the YMCA complex last week, I was alone but not for long. I parked my car, walked to the Administration Building, and looked for my people. There they were, checking in at our reunion table: my people with warm welcome hugs, directions to our lodgings, and dinner plans. Imagine 80 people in a lodge dining area, seeing each other for the first time in three years, lining up for hot dogs and hamburgers, tomatoes, potato salad, and watermelon. A four month old baby, the youngest, lies on the floor on a blanket under a suspended mobile. The gaggle is joyful. A three-year-old throws a quick tantrum when he loses sight of his family. Laughter flies. Greetings flow. There is enough food for seconds. The mountain sunset pinks the sky. A group gathers around a fire pit. Children chase one another. Cousins watch the evening sky from the front porch. Inside women surround one table, men another. I overhear the men discussing weather, floods, soybeans, finances. The women talk about their grandchildren, their homes, hair, travel. Before long everyone is teasing one another. It is a generous three hours before everyone retires.
Over the three days, amid our play activities, we learn all this: A cousin has been diagnosed with ALS, just like her sister and an aunt. We wonder if it is genetic. She encourages us; she doesn’t want us to be sad or worried. We check on one another: How is the paralyzed brother doing? How is the widowed cousin doing? A cousin’s service dog, presiding faithfully near his master, has apparently saved his master three times from epileptic seizures. A cousin prepares to move to a retirement community. My brother talks of why or why not to move from California’s Yosemite forest to Idaho. A cousin summarizes his long range plan to remain on his farm. We hear about Arizona winters, Nebraska floods, gardens, hearing aids. We praise the talents of grandchildren, their future plans, their unique personalities.
A cousin has moved from Colorado to Oregon to craft a new chapter in her life, possibly her final chapter, to be near her sons and their families. I say, “You are writing a new story.” She corrects me, “I’m not writing the story.” She faithfully follows the Lord’s direction for her life. She wants to emphasize this truth. She has always encouraged me in my own faith life, she being the more devout, me the more practical, slightly askew follower of faith, occasionally thinking, Really?
When I mention how hard my son works, that there aren’t enough doctors, that he tells me doctors are becoming disillusioned, my cousin’s daughter, a nurse at Mayo, speaks up and reinforces this point of view. There will not be enough medical practitioners in the future.
A group goes on a day hike. Another group goes rock climbing. Some men go on a fly fishing tour. Others hang out at the craft center. Cousins of my generation circle each morning at ten to share about our lives, what is happening, what might happen. We gravitate to memories of our early reunions on the farm when we were children, stories about our grand-parents, filling in blank spots. We played on the discarded farm implements in the woods. We took baths in a common tub. At Christmas everyone received a silver dollar. Cats weren’t allowed in the house. We drank water from a common dipper in an enamel pail, the water pumped from a well in the yard. Grandma cared for everyone in the years of tragedy. The affection and cohesion of those early years is like honey, sweet and tactile.
I open a bottle of wine one night with my niece, her husband, and my sister-in-law. Our stories fall into a comfortable space; we are the only ones who can understand them, no matter how many times we tell them to our friends, even our children.
Tuesday morning at 5:30am my phone trembles and clangs. I stumble out of bed, dress, and drive to the main family lodge. At 6am I’m to meet my brother, sister-in-law, niece and her husband. We volunteered to make breakfast for everyone. Rich, my cousin-in-law, has been up since 5 and has made the first pot of coffee. I’ve arrived ahead of my clan, who are, they say later, knocking on my door trying to rouse me, certain that I’ve slept through my alarm. I’m grateful for the coffee and Rich’s early morning silence. I begin pulling out skillets and pans. John flips pancakes on two griddles. Eileen and I bake 16 pounds of bacon and scramble six dozen eggs. Burt and Sharon cut up bananas and melons. Sharon lays out condiments, paper plates and bowls, cereal, yogurt, milk, syrup, and blueberries. She keeps the three carafes of coffee flowing. Ten hikers show up before seven. By 9am, everyone has been fed and Burt is scrubbing pots and pans.
The reunion is exactly as it was envisioned: it’s not a vacation, it is a reunion. It lasts three days and keeps us bonded, reminding us that we were and are loved, supported and supporting, accepted and accepting. In the meantime we are free to wear ourselves out wading through mountain streams, zip lining, or hiking. I took long walks and hung out in the art and craft center, quietly making earrings and necklaces. There is something for everyone to do. The anchor, however, is belonging.
* Any accurate accounting of our numbers might take awhile. When five of us tried to count the second generation cousins our totals disagreed: Fourteen! No, Sixteen! I think it’s eighteen. Wait, did you count Pam and Ronny? We’ve lost two. Exactly who are we counting? Start over. Let’s see. It’s eighteen! Eighteen! Are you sure? Yes. Wait. There were…and then…
** Dorothy Ann Rinne Hahn has written a complete history of our Jeffery family beginning in Cornwall, England. She will share this document within the family after she revises it with recent suggestions by family members.
The reunion photo of all 2019 attendees was taken by professional photographer Erika Trout Thompson, daughter of my cousin Wayne Trout and his wife Shirley.