A tradition like no other

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I have been attending these events for more than half a century, and swear me in as a witness, my palm on the Good Book, when I assure you that no way does any family reunite better.

By Steve Doyle

They lounged beneath awnings that were erected under a shade tree in the front yard and at tables, chairs, benches and even a swing spaced along an L-shaped front porch. They squeezed into folding chairs at tables, found occasional seats along walls, surrounded card tables pushed together in the family room and even stood and sat in spots around the perimeter of the kitchen and on playground equipment in the back yard.

At each of those perches these men, women, boys and girls executed a ritual that they have practiced and celebrated en masse for generations longer than I ever could remember:

They broke bread and shared a meal and celebrated the untenable bond of family.

These were the descendants of the maternal branches of my father’s family tree, and if this group, about 60 or so strong as they convened at the home of Leonard and Jean Kemper near Christiansburg on Sunday, didn’t invent the art form known as the family reunion, then they surely have spent about a century trying to perfect it.

Dozens of family members have lived and died, venues have been built and razed, but there has been nothing more constant, it seems, than this group getting together to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and just the pure and unquestioned love born in a strain of shared and parsed DNA.

You have attended a reunion, I’m sure. Maybe of your family members, your church, your classes at schools, even civic clubs or teams.

But I have been attending these events for more than half a century, and swear me in as a witness, my palm on the Good Book, when I assure you that no way does any family reunite better.

I have attended many other similar gatherings. I have seen the routines and know which is supreme.

These are the descendants, most recently, of Emory and Mamie Perkins White, a farm family that raised three sons and three daughters on a plot of land that remains the family farm off Fields Lane near Simpsonville.

But the practice of joining together in the name of family clearly dates back to when photographs first were becoming caretakers of history.

And each epoch of that family history, it seems, had a few constants:
First there were award-winning cooks who saved their most prized traditional recipes to be strung around the tables and counters in a country kitchen for a buffet that no elite restaurant could match.

There was a separate small room that served as headquarters for deserts that were so delectable that you surely gained an extra pound just by looking at the tall meringues, the puddings, salads, cookies and concoctions.

There always were the storytellers, who could hold a room with their memories, their perspectives and a writer’s sense of detail in outlining current and historic events, sometimes tying together the two in personal witness.

Men sometimes talked politics, often talked of cars, shared farming forecasts and health histories. Women talked about the men, most likely, but some took charge in the kitchen while others played equal roles with their partners as conversationalists.

And at the center of all this were those who have maintained the oral history of the family, sharing their chapters, sometimes reinforced by photographs, always creating time stamps for the next generation.

Even as the faces have changed and became less familiar, as new ones arrived to join the tradition, there was the constant and simply communicated sense of where this family had been and where it was going.

On this particular Sunday, with family members ranging in age from 2 weeks to more than 90 years, there was an old book of photographs that showed some of the oldest of the faces among us as gangling kids, babes in arms and even as “hubba-hubba” girls of the World War II era and before.

The images created chapters, showed the family’s places of being and pieced a story of the evolution of these reunions.

For many years the summer gathering of this group met in August on the farm where I lived, under the big maples and across the front porch and in every room of my grandparents’ 2-story, craftsman-style home.

My grandmother would prepare for weeks, first with cleaning and readying the house, then with baking her famed banana cake and gathering the ingredients for the traditional orange-sherbet-and-ginger-ale Baptist church picnic punch.

When I was a boy, my grandfather and I would divide all the males into baseball teams – his of the men, mine of the next generation – and argue for weeks about who was going to play and win. That was an art form for us, such arguments of superiority, but in all those summers when we jotted down lineups and sometimes even debated about who was on which team, we never played a competitive inning.

Oh, baseballs were thrown, caught and struck dozens of times, just never in competition, much to my chafed chagrin.

These highly anticipated gatherings also represented to me uniquely different stages in my development.

It was somewhat of an unofficial tradition that various groups would gather in specific places. The older men commandeered the porch or the dining room, and the women dominated kitchen areas.

The next younger couples found their place in between, and it was here as I grew older that I measured my manly development by being accepted into that room and being a contributor to the conversation.

Somehow, the years and living mostly elsewhere have left me outside the mainstream now. I’m just another guest who reunites with faces familiar and faintly familiar. There are names I don’t know, and no one has threatened to start a baseball game in which I might be drafted to play.

But there is no place I can name where I can sit down and be more comfortable, more at home, more at a sense of place, time and perspective than at this family gathering.

They call it a reunion, but we are not rejoining something that is broken but, rather, rejoicing in something that always will be.