Scenes from a family reunion

By Margaret M. Treadwell

Our family tree is spread across a picnic table at Camp Cullen on Mobile Bay.

“Tommy, have you met your cousin Tommy?” I ask the two young men who are studying it. They reach across the table to shake hands over the diagram of their ancestors including four previous generations of Thomas Henrys.

“Here is the great, great grandfather you both are named for,” I point to the first Thomas born in 1800. His son, escaping Ireland’s Potato Famine in 1848, bypassed Ellis Island and landed with his new wife in Mobile, where they produced a large family (our grandfather Thomas Henry was the eighth of eleven children) and with them built a successful wholesale grocery business. Both Tommys quickly discover they have inherited that entrepreneurial, adventuresome spirit – a bond enriched by the mystery of how deep blood flows.

This moment was one of the thrills of our first McDonnell Family Reunion, a biennial event since 1996 and renamed “Uncle Buddy’s Reunion” for our beloved remaining uncle who recently died at age 95. Before that first gathering, 18 of us first cousins had never met or had only passing acquaintance. (My locked-in memories include two mean girl cousins who pulled my hair as a child, and a slightly older boy who was invited to baseball games with my Dad and uncles while I stayed home.) Our fathers, seven brothers who lost both their parents way too young, married strong women who preferred their own family of origin. As my mother succinctly explains, “I just liked my family and your father was contented with them too.”

Drifting apart is the way many families solve the unresolved emotional attachment to their parents, siblings and larger family.

In our generation, we cousins of cut-off parents were repeating this pattern, joining our spouse’s family like an “appendage.” This position often made me more a follower rather than a leader in our nuclear family, reacting to others rather than initiating decisions.

So, why initiate a family reunion? What difference could it make? I had the following five goals

• To satisfy my curiosity. Who are these people? If I were writing a Southern novel, where would I find our strengths, joys, sorrows, blood, guts, and secrets? Could we nourish each other’s strengths? Was it possible to become more objective rather than holding on to my subjective stance of “My mother’s family is more important; besides you were mean to me when I was 5?”

• To reduce the intense focus on my husband and two children by expanding our circle, especially while my father and several of his brothers were dying of terminal illnesses. The pain of isolation had grown too great to bear, and our kids needed cousins.

• To be one of the team and a part of the family system. How might I fit into this large Irish band?

• To gather stories and put life into our family tree.

• To have fun.

After I found my amazing cousin Betty who, surrounded by brothers, longed for a sister, planning the reunion was fairly simple because she liked my ideas and knew the means to carry them out on Mobile Bay where our fathers had summered until their parents’ deaths.

Except for drawing the family tree (also known as a diagram or genogram), I determined simply to listen, watch and enjoy folks. I became the self-appointed “game cousin,” finding ways to gather facts and stories about each other through play. I believe the lighthearted pleasure we share is what keeps us returning to reunions and staying in touch throughout the year. When the going gets tough, one conversation with a cousin (including the two special ones with whom I grew up on my mother’s side) can work wonders to give me perspective, make me laugh and calm me down.

Like all families, we have our multigenerational patterns of weakness. Many of us inherited the propensity to problem solve by physically and emotionally distancing from one another, unconsciously cutting ourselves off from healing resources. The branch of our family that lives the closest to Mobile Bay is least likely to show up for reunions because one daughter doesn’t speak to her mother creating polarization between herself and the siblings who do.

But our inherited strengths and love are greater. Our cousins who had completely disappeared before that first reunion gave us a bedtime goodnight poem from their father, who also died young. It could be repeated to any child no matter what his country of origin and that child would feel proud: “You are direct descendants of Brian Boru, the first and only King of Ireland, and you are a Princess (or Prince) in your own right.”

We cousins need each other.

Margaret M. (Peggy) Treadwell, L.I.C.S.W., is a family psychotherapist and teacher in private practice. She teaches a course on Congregational Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary and writes a monthly column for Washington Window.

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