Thursday, August 5, 2010


Way back in the distant past, when I worked as a full-time designer, our magazine staff would hold a weekly meeting to discuss projects and coordinate our schedules. At one of these meetings, I mentioned that I would be taking some time off for a family reunion, to which my coworker responded by offering me her condolences. "I'm so sorry!" she said, "Family reunions can be such an annoying waste of vacation time."

I remember being taken aback by that comment. It had honestly never occurred to me that family reunions are, for many people, a real drag—an endless week of sidestepping touchy subjects, of reviving ancient grudges, of navigating through a web of gossipy whispers and hurt feelings and bitter misunderstandings. Blood may be thicker than water, but after a week like that, I can understand why water would sound a lot more refreshing—and why condolences would be the proper response.

"No, no! It's not like that," I answered, "I actually like these people!"

We recently returned from our annual Kvale family reunion in western Washington, and I would like to take this opportunity to amend my response; I don't just like these people. I love them. This reunion is not an obligation. It's a privilege.

For twenty-five years now, my mom and her eight brothers and sisters and their families have spent three days vacationing together, a tradition begun by my grandparents when I was young and continued for these many years since they've been gone. And now that I have kids of my own, it makes me happy just to see how my boys can hardly contain their excitement as they anticipate the days spent with aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins by the lake—and how they can hardly contain their disappointment as we drive back home, leaving all of that fun and camaraderie behind.

Like most families, we're a quirky, varied bunch of people, and the memories I have are quirky and varied, too. I remember the time my uncle fell asleep on the lawn, and the brothers-in-law surrounded him with empty beer bottles pulled from the recycling bin. I remember the time my cousin organized all of us kids into a grand performance of a Belinda Carlisle pop ballad, using ping-pong paddles as "guitars." I remember the time my grandmother woke up early (as usual) and decided that 5:30 a.m. would be a great time to empty the dishwasher—with all the clinking and clanging and banging echoing throughout the lodge. I remember singing cheesy Sunday School songs by the campfire—in full, four-part harmony heavily weighted toward the alto section. I remember knock-down, drag-out games of Scrabble in the wee hours of the morning.

We've done hiking, and swimming, and line dancing, and foosball, and softball, and golf. And I'm sure that for every memory I have, there are hundreds more that stand out in the minds of my relatives.  But one activity has remained constant despite the changing venues and the growing numbers; each of the three days of our reunion is brought to a close by a time of singing and prayer. There are 70 of us (give or take) in one room, thanking God together for His faithfulness to our family, and asking Him to meet one another's needs. The older I get, the more I see how remarkable it is to have these opportunities every evening. And if my coworker's comment is any indication, we enjoy a peace between us that, it seems, is extremely rare.

I'm not saying that our family relationships are never painful—even heartbreaking—at times. Like every extended family, we're part of Adam's fallen race. But unlike many extended families, we are also part of the Second Adam's race. A spirit of patience and forgiveness pervades our interactions, and in spite of our differences we share a unity that cannot be explained by family ties alone. Blood may be thicker than water. But what flows between us is thicker still.

Who could ask for a better inheritance? My grandparents didn't leave us all with yachts and Caribbean condos and stacks of cash. Sure, none of us would mind boating around the Bahamas with an unlimited budget. But we'd never take it in exchange for the kind of family we have been given. Each summer, we have a living, breathing reminder of what kind of long-term equity we are working to build. Raising nine children on the kind of money my grandfather made by milking cows, felling trees, and pumping gas might, by many, have been deemed fiscally irresponsible, but who, looking around at one of our reunions, could argue with his rate of return or the generational worth of his assets? We are rich beyond all calculation, regardless of what our mutual funds say.

From my grandparents, I inherited a red cast iron gum ball machine. In terms of material possessions, that's all I got. But the true inheritance that they passed on to me—and to my children—is a crowd of cousins, countless happy memories, a delightful summer tradition, and a confident hope in the reunion that will include not only my grandmother and grandfather, but all the faithful who have gone before them. No condolences necessary.


Christopher and Jackie said...

[sharp intake of breath] YOU got the gumball machine!!!

Seriously, though, thanks for the nice post. Made me sad to have missed reunion once again.

Erika said...

I think I might have to link up to this, because I couldn't and don't want to say anything better than this. I often have told co-workers how much I love hanging out with family, and how I couldn't imagine NOT wanting to.
And I really hated it when Grandma unloaded the dishwasher...but I suppose we played pool while she slept, and I'm guessing we were louder. ;)

Paula K. said...

Beautiful, Hannah!

Nicky said...

Hah, Jackie, I said the same thing in my mind. Well, I guess I inherited the piano.

And yeah, I missed reunion this year too. Sniff. I can't believe you mentioned singing 'circle in the sand'. I hope Kristen reads this blog.

Amy Nonhof said...

Sounds like we have the same kind of family reunions! Unfortunately ours are only every 5 years but we were blessed once again to celebrate another one this summer with 160 some of us.

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