Getting together for a (hopefully) happy reunion

Bruce Feiler / New York Times News Service /

This summer, 39 members of the Peters family gathered in Smith Mountain Lake, Va., just outside Roanoke, for their 40th family reunion. What started with five nearby families in 1970 has grown to 10 families, some from as far away as Alaska and Washington state. Activities included water-skiing, a pickleball tournament and TV theme-song trivia night.

For some outsiders, the Peterses’ tradition of gathering every summer is a fantasy of togetherness, mutual support and love. For others, it’s a particular kind of hell. I asked Oliver Peters, whose father started the tradition and who has been the event’s chairman for the past 13 years, how he cuts down on fighting.

Three rules, he said. No. 1: be clear about who’s paying for what; No. 2: make attendance at the event, or any activity within the event, optional; No. 3: make sure each family has its own space.

“Separate living quarters was, and still is, very important to all of us,” Peters said. “We want to be able to get away from one another for some alone time. Living in one of those big 8-, 10-bedroom megahouses was out of the question.”

Few topics elicit stronger emotions in families than the idea of an extended family gathering. I recently did a search for “family reunion” on Twitter. Negative responses outweighed positive ones by 10-to-1. “Absolutely dreading this weekend #familyreunion.” “I wish I had a cigarette. I’m not even a smoker #familyreunion.” “Off to a family reunion #tryingtostaypositive #keepmymindoffofit.” “Family reunion today. What am I most excited for? Margaritas with my grandmother.”

Yet despite this dark humor, family reunions are remarkably popular. They usually involve a core family whose descendants bring their own families to a joint event. These gatherings can range from fewer than 30 people to more than 1,000. Edith Wagner, the editor of Reunions magazine, told me that at least 200,000 family reunions are held every year, involving as many as 100 million people.

Given the undercurrent of hostility, as well as the myriad problems that may arise — drunk uncles, political catfights, who’s gluten-free and who eats only what they kill — how is a modern family to survive these squabbles? To pick up some tips, I reached out to some families who deserve Olympic medals for their longstanding reunions.

• Appoint a good-will ambassador

Dr. Ione Vargus, a professor emerita of social work administration at Temple University and the founder of the Family Reunion Institute, has studied family gatherings for decades, particularly in the African-American community, where the tradition exploded after Alex Haley’s “Roots” was published in 1976. She said many people don’t like the idea of reunions because they’re concerned they’ll be judged.

She saw that when her own family held its first gathering in 1980.

“My mother was such a strong figure, and she was very education-oriented, a little fearsome about it,” Vargus said. “Some of the grandchildren thought, ‘Well, gee, will I be accepted because I’m not going to college?’”

Their solution: Appoint a good-will ambassador from the older generation to reach out to younger members in advance to assure them they would feel included. At the event itself, organizers planned a series of conversations to get issues out into the open. These included “What does it mean to be a black family?” and “How does it feel to come from a family that’s somewhat prominent?”

“Out of that, I think my nephews felt welcome and part of the family,” Vargus said.

• Leave the grumps behind

Wagner said that many families find it easier to encourage those with hostile attitudes to just stay away.

“If somebody really, truly doesn’t want to go, it’s a big mistake to make them go,” she said. “They’re going to stay grumpy the whole time, and they’re going to spoil it for everybody else.”

• Get the money in advance

Everybody agrees that the single biggest problem with reunions is figuring out how to pay for them. Guests delay confirming their attendance until the last minute, show up without RSVPing or bring along stragglers. As one veteran told me, “Anyone who hasn’t planned a wedding doesn’t realize that caterers need deposits, hotels need deposits, the musician needs a deposit.”

One response: Give crashers a map to the nearest McDonald’s and tell them what time the potato-sack races start.

Daisy Stroud tried a more inclusive approach. The mastermind behind this summer’s Cook Goings McGraw family reunion in Buffalo, N.Y., which included 65 family members, Stroud planned three days of events, including a fish fry, a family picnic, a tour of Niagara Falls and a semiformal gala.

For two years, she organized a family conference call on the first Saturday of every month (the one rule: “No interrupting!”), in which she tried to lock down the schedule and attendance. Still, securing funds was a struggle. Her take-away: “Collect the money up front.”

• Keep alcoholics anonymous

Every family has one: the uncle who can’t stay sober, or the sister-in-law who gets drunk and starts trashing others. Sylvia Ford-George, who works with the Family Reunion Institute and whose family will hold its 25th reunion next year (highest attendance: 200 people), said that shame is a powerful weapon. “No one wants to be the one folks go home and talk about because they misbehaved,” she said.

Her advice: plan on what to do with troublemakers; isolate them; follow up later.

After a group of young people acted up at one reunion and their parents failed to intervene, she said, other relatives threatened to boycott future events. “The family planners used their newsletter to talk about what happened, how inappropriate the behavior was, and offered to meet with the parents,” she said. “There was no more talk about not coming to reunions.”

• Have a designated purple person

What about the Fox News/MSNBC divide? Which is to say, what happens when the line for cornbread gets interrupted by talk of, say, gay marriage, a path to citizenship or the threat of Shariah law? Wagner, who described herself as a Rachel Maddow fan, mentioned a recent gathering in which she and her Republican brother-in-law exchanged two sentences about taxation, “and all of a sudden my niece was standing in between us, with her face in mine, saying, ‘Do not say another word.’”

Some families send out announcements in advance that talk of politics is not welcome, she said, but she prefers designating a “purple person” who steps between the red and blue ones and says: “These are not the types of things we’d like to discuss. I’m sure you can find plenty of things to talk about.”

• Children first

The best defense against blowups is to plan lots of events. Phyllis Naumann, the secretary of the Seidemann family, which last month assembled 400 people for its 80th reunion, said the key to keeping adults from fighting is arranging for many activities for children. Their highlights: bingo, tug-of-war and a pie-eating contest.

“Kids sit down and eat chocolate pudding topped with whipped cream out of a pie pan, make a mess eating it and come away a winner,” she said. “Not one mother can get mad about it.”

In the end, that type of intergenerational play is what reunions are about, Wagner said. “They’re a way for the whole family to stay connected and for children to know where they came from,” she said.

If you can’t think of anything else to do, she said, have the adults tell the children what they were doing when they were their age. “The adults start laughing, the kids have their mouths open, and soon everybody forgets what they were fighting about.”