Family reunions were events where family members would come from far and wide to gather at or near what was considered the family’s ancestral home town.  A reunion was a day of feasting and sharing stories of ancestors and catching up with current news – new babies, weddings, graduations, etc.  People usually included promises to keep in closer touch over the coming year.  For those who have worked on their family trees, I am sure you have stumbled across the society pages of old newspapers where family reunions were announced with a list of all those who attended.  These events were newsworthy at the time.

Growing up in Ohio from the ‘50s through the ‘70s, my family’s annual Keefer reunion was something all the family members would get excited about.  Just a few of the elders in the family would do the planning and reserve a building at the county fairgrounds.  In more recent times, it had been held at the Nellie, Ohio school grounds where my grandmother Keefer graduated in 1912.  Our family reunions stopped several years before the pandemic, as those who had led the reunions in the past were looking to take a step back for health reasons or had passed on.  There were no volunteers willing to step up.

Somewhere along the timeline, social media entered our lives.  This brought about a huge shift for many away from our curiosity of family ancestors and current updates about the family.  Today, it has become easy to connect with family members worldwide on a social media platform.  This has encouraged people to open an image on their phone, click and share.  Instantaneously the image of a graduation, wedding, new baby, etc. is posted for all to see and comment on.  And this is what much of our family communication has come to represent – snippets of images, then thoughts and well wishes added to the image or in most cases a click on an emoji. 

A more time consuming process of posting images is to dig through a box of old photographs or photo albums and reflect on what we find.  Then, take that image, digitize it, post it to the social media platform of choice and type a story you remember about the person or event.  Sharing stories AND images of people from a time before digital cameras when paper was the means of prompting memories is something that many of the younger generations are not familiar with.  I am personally connected to many Facebook pages where people post digitized images from the past – many about families and have either no idea who is in the picture or what was really happening at that time.  It is rare and exciting to have someone post an image and share a story for us to read about the people who are represented.

Family reunions like the ones I discussed above are becoming rarer these days and they are not covered in the local newspapers anymore.  We seem to be using Thanksgiving gatherings and other holiday gatherings to substitute for the traditional family reunion.  The main difference here is that a holiday gathering normally includes just the immediate family members – maybe grandparents, children and grandchildren.  Seldom are aunts, uncles, cousins or other extended family members included.  When this happens, there is little chance that family history will be discussed at any length or depth, if at all.

What the family has experienced in the past has had a profound effect on how the family and its individual members have evolved into the present.  Any family gathering, especially those that have multi-generations present, is a great time to share the rich stories of the past.  From kids hearing stories about the family history and trying recipes that have been passed down over the years, family gatherings like this help children form identities about who they are and where the family has originated from. 

Time is precious, and a family reunion or any family gathering can bring people from across the state (or country) to share their stories before they are lost to history. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren can get to know their grandparents and older aunts and uncles.  It was a family reunion where I learned that my grandfather from Ohio, born in 1886, had made the trek as a young man, west to Oregon and punched cattle on the Oregon Trail around 1905.  He then returned to Akron, Ohio to be a conductor on the street cars.

Document, chronicle, archive, set down, take down, or write down – these are all terms used to describe the act of recording history.  That is what family stories are – the history and legacy of your family.  Next time you are going to attend a family gathering or have family over – break out some old family photos. You may be surprised at the stories people will remember once an image is put in front of them.  Once the stories start, grab a note pad and start writing what you hear.  Or if you have your phone charged and handy – start the recording feature.  Either way, documenting your family history has begun.

Michael Hawthorne

Founder and Chief Guide to the Past

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