The rebirth of the family reunion

A Brock family reunion meant matching shirts.

by Mike Brock

For most, the pandemic meant the forced separation of families around the world.  Birthday parties became drive-bys, or crazy neighbour shouts from the sidewalk.  Thanksgiving dinners over Zoom taught us all how to sneak an extra dollop of gravy without being seen by the camera.  And, when the family part of the family dinner got to be too much, there was always the option of mysterious wifi problems popping up right when the conversation got a little too heated, or the Leafs game was going into overtime.  But, as the lifting of restrictions continues, you have no more excuses, and there is a decent possibility that you will have to see your extended family this summer.  That’s right, for better or for worse, family reunion season is wide open again.

Every family has its own traditions, values, and recipes but the dynamics of a family reunion are pretty universal.  Now, the bigger the family – and the more generations involved – the more likely you’re going to have some real fireworks.  You’re usually going to see mixed families, step families.  I’ve identified some of the characters that you’ll find at every family reunion:

The “Aunt”.  She’s not really your aunt – she might not be an aunt to anyone – but you were told to call her your aunt when you were 8, and now that you’re 50, you’re still calling her an aunt.  Either way, you’ve never really understood if she’s your mother’s cousin, you’re grandfather’s niece in-law, or a friend of Betsy’s from down the street who dropped in unannounced at the last reunion, and now she’s invited to everything.  Heck, if her Bundt Cake is that good, she’s welcome anytime.

The Quiet Uncle.  He’s one of my favourites.  Stands in a corner of the porch, and drinks Coors Light.  Laughs at your jokes, and asks questions about your outboard motor.  He is an island of refuge in  the sea of chaos.  A rock, who won’t overreact to kids running with scissors, or freak out when someone spills grape juice on the deck.  He might grumble if the beers aren’t cold enough, but that is understandable. 

The Precocious Toddler.  Star of the show.  Old enough to communicate, and do most things on their own, this weekend will be the highlight of their life so far.  Importantly, too, it will be the highlight of the Precocious Toddler’s parents’ year.  They’ll be able to pawn this ball of bombastic energy, and dirty underwear onto aunts and uncles and older cousins for a few days.  Sure, at some point this kid will make everyone laugh.  On the way home, though, everyone will separately agree that “kid is a handful.  I’m glad we don’t have to deal with that every day.”

The Camp Director.  Typically someone who has actually been to summer camp, but has never actually been a director at summer camp.  Usually a member of the second generation, and probably the host, or offspring of the hosts.  Someone has to plan.  And, while everyone will show appreciation – perhaps a toast at dinner on the first night – no one will really understand how many dietary considerations, t-shirt size changes, sleeping arrangements, and truly stupid questions he or she has had to answer via email over the last 6 months

The Engineer.   I say engineer, but this could be anyone without an iron ring, too.  It’s the thinker, the scientist, the figurer-out-of-things.  If there’s a problem getting the barbecue started, or a new tent needs to be assembled, this is the person everyone will give space and time and authority to.  Usually, if things go right, they’ll end up getting more praise than the Camp Director – even so far as to be named the “MVP OF THE REUNION FOR SAVING OUR HOT DOGS!!!”.  The Camp Director will notice this, and never forget it. 

The Young Athlete.  There’s always a superstar athlete.  Maybe an average hockey, or softball, or soccer player during the school year, but at the family reunion, it doesn’t really matter.  This teenager has more skill, hand eye coordination and competitiveness than most everybody else put together.  They will guide whichever team they’re picked on to victory, be it volleyball, bocce or horseshoes.  And the older generation will ooh and aah, and clap and squeal with every deke and long throw.  The entire weekend is a moment of shining glory for the Young Athlete, who is likely to get out of doing dishes, but also will be asked to do every stitch of physical labour needed.  As in, “Can you please bring the 14 cases of Diet Coke from the car please, Junior?”.  If the Young Athlete says no to this, then they know their status as the Young Athlete is in immediate peril, so they do it.  With a smile on.

The Old Athlete.  Oh, man.  This is the end of the road for the career arc of an athlete.  When a new “Young Athlete” is crowned (and there’s one in every generation) the Old Athlete, despite every effort, just becomes Old.  While they may put up a good effort, and try to keep up with the Young Athlete, this usually ends up in embarrassment, injury, or both.  Best to just let sleeping dogs lie, and tell stories to all the kids and cousins about what it was like “when I was younger.”  The Old Athlete is quickly relegated to the Barbecuer/Bartender.

The Grandparents.  This is the pinnacle for those who have put decades into starting and building a big family.  The work is done, except for the judging.  This is the ultimate judging opportunity for the patriarchs and the matriarchs.  The cooking?  “Not the way I would have done it.  We never needed a sous vide.”  The disciplining of kids?  Yes, things have changed, thankfully.  Starting the lawn mower?  “You prime 4 times.  I don’t care what it says on the manual.  Engines haven’t changed that much since they knew how to make ‘em.”  The bartending?  “I think you missed the gin in mine.”  But under all that gruff, and all those false complaints is what it’s all about.  Love. Pride.  Contentment for what is to come and what you’ve left behind. 

Family reunions are for everyone.  For new additions by birth or marriage.  For old faces you haven’t seen in years.  For cousins who you only talk to on Instagram.  Family helps us all get stronger, and if you have to put up with the quirks and jerks for a weekend, grin and bear it.  Because in the end, it’s all relative.

The bottom line is, look after each other, have fun, and make sure you put enough gin in Grandpa’s cocktail.