Over the July 4th long weekend, I flew up to southern Illinois for a family reunion for my dad's side, which started on Thursday with a picnic followed by fireworks. There are lots of us Klockenkempers: my great-grandmother had nine children, seven (all boys) who survived to adulthood and married and had children of their own (my great-uncle John and his wife have 10). Those children had children. There are even a few great-great-grandchildren now.
While my great-grandmother was alive, we used to have the reunions every two years over Thanksgiving, which was near her birthday, but since she passed away in 2004 (she was 109!), we moved them to summer and now only hold them every three years.
We started having them regularly when I was in high school, and I've never missed one. But others have. And this weekend, I was able to meet one of my dad's cousins, and her husband and three children, whom I had never met before. The funny thing was, she knew me, because she'd found me online several years ago and has been reading stories I wrote for the paper. We chatted away like we'd known each other forever.
With other cousins, aunts and uncles, I exchanged stories about past visits (some decades ago) and updated each other other family who weren't able to attend. Although some of us are veritable strangers, there was this common bond, this connection and fascination with our shared history, that is such a blessing. There was lots of laughter.
Family can also be a challenge. With the togetherness, there is the danger of almost inevitable gossip, the expected-but-well-meant "When are you going to get married so we can have another family wedding?" questions, clashing personalities and political ideologies and the "don't tell so-and-so I said this, but..." conversations. There was the constant go-go-go of having to meet up for meals and events that, in rural Illinois farm country, involved a lot of time-consuming driving, which could be a bit tiring. To save money, I also shared a hotel room with my parents, and my introverted self found the lack of privacy to simply recharge after those full days a bit daunting,
Still, there was the love we share for who we are and where we came from, and for those we have lost. And there was prayer and comfort offered for those who are sick, or out of the country, or struggling, because there is another common bond we share, our Catholic faith. On Saturday, we concluded the reunion with a vigil mass, celebrated in the front yard of my great-grandmother's house in the tiny hamlet were my grandfather and his brothers grew up. No one lives there now, and the hundred-year-old house really isn't in a state to be lived in, but the property is still in the family. So we scattered chairs and blankets in the front yard, a local retired priest came over and set up an alter on the front porch, my Uncle Joe played hymns on his guitar and we had mass under the trees and the late afternoon sunshine in a place we all, despite the distances we now came from, are bound by. It was beautiful. There were nearly 100 of us, and I am so thankful for all of them.