I believe that family structures are the building blocks for all societies, here and in other countries as well. We live in a fast-changing world with so many things in our lives that seem to be just happening beyond our ability to control or avoid. Families give us an anchor that can tie the present with our personal history in the past.
Both of my grandmothers were born just before the Civil War. My father’s mother was born in a farming community in Iowa that was anti-slavery in political orientation. My mother’s mother was born in Virginia that supported the economic and social structure based on slavery. She was one of six sisters and had two brothers.
Starting after the Civil war ended and stretching into the next century, the Virginia reunions continued. In 1939, I joined my grandparents on their annual trek back to Virginia. It was my first train ride and first reunion. I liked the family members we met.
My Iowa relatives had no annual family reunion, but my grandmother remained in contact with her Iowa roots. Because my dad lost all his money when the banks failed in 1929, we lived in his mother’s home rent free.
After school I remember that most days I would play a game of Chinese checkers with Grandmother and I deliberately lost to make her feel good for the day. Without a family reunion, all I learned about my dad’s childhood in Fairbanks and Waterloo, Iowa, came when my grandmother would relate a little history when we chatted over the game.
My Virginia relatives were close to each other, and the annual reunions were held on the first Saturday in August on the grounds of the old family home that had burned to the ground before the turn of the century. The family gathered on the grounds of the building that had served as a schoolhouse and home for the youngest of the family sisters.
At each reunion, the sisters and brothers always posed for a family photograph, but the survivors were fewer and fewer as age took its toll. Finally all the original sisters and brothers had died and the reunions stopped. After a while they were reinstated, but instead of meeting in the shade of the large trees on the family property, they now meet in air-conditioned comfort in the small Episcopal Church that was built at the edge of the property near Tappahannock.
After my mom died, my sister thought we should begin our own reunion and not just gather when a funeral was held. We have had about 20 reunions so far. This year, in the second week of July, we gathered near Bedford, Va., for our annual Nichols family reunion. Our reunions move from city to city. I was host to one here in Gainesville.
This year in the Virginia reunion, 45 relatives attended. The most heard word was "love." Before each meal, we prayed, thanking God for his love, for the meal before us and for our country and family. There was a full schedule of events on land and on Smith Mountain Lake (with a pontoon boat for old geezers like me, and a speed boat for the younger crowd).
Saturday afternoon brought a huge storm and everybody took shelter. About 25 or more crowded into one of the cabins we had rented for the event. One young man asked me to describe our family history. Nichols family history began when our main ancestor migrated from New York State to Chicago in a covered wagon. Then our forefather moved down to Iowa to establish a cattle farm for the Chicago meat market.
Sometime later, after Grandmother Nichols became ill, her doctor recommended a climate change. So the family moved to Florida, where Dad met our future mom in high school. Mom, though born in Virginia, lived all her life in Florida. Mom and Dad eloped and were married by a justice of the peace underneath a large live oak tree. And thus our immediate family was begun unconventionally.
I guess I am now the family patriarch (definitely the oldest, nearly 82) and I enjoyed relating family history to the kids present. For a short time, I was important as their link to the past.
I look forward to our next family reunion. I hope your family has reunions as refreshing and invigorating as ours.
God is good to give us each other for support and love.
Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears regularly and on gainesvilletimes.com.