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Taking the Kids

Families Together, At Last

January 04, 1998|EILEEN OGINTZ

No one could have guessed the kids were practically strangers as they swapped goofy jokes that only they could understand.

That they came from different parts of the country--and entirely different ways of life--amused rather than confused them. While one boy recounted his daily before-school chores on the dairy farm, the city slickers in the group talked about New York subways and California freeways. Another youngster was mesmerized by the mountains. He'd never seen any before.

The kids teamed up for sports, origami sessions and marathon UNO games. They played together as if they always had, in the same way their parents had a generation before in Texas, where their grandparents lived and raised seven children.

Almost everyone in the family--there were 40 first cousins in the baby-boom generation--lived in Texas back then. Reunions were a simple afternoon affair: swimming and a cookout, with plenty of home movies taken of kids making funny faces and dads smiling over the grill.

Today, the family, like most, is spread across the country and beyond, as those baby boomers, including my husband, grew up to become military officers and teachers, housewives and journalists, businessmen and secretaries, professors and artists. Some of the cousins who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s hadn't seen each other in more than 30 years.

Understandably, the parents worried that the grandchildren were growing up with little understanding of their sprawling family and its Texas history. That's why they worked so hard for two years to gather everyone for a giant reunion at the YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center in Colorado.

"I see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Mary McQuillen, one of my husband's aunts as she watched the family of nearly 100 gather for a group photograph.

The new generation of cousins was just as enthusiastic.

"I never would have met half these people otherwise, and it's fun," said 14-year-old Jody Poole, one of the Texans in the group.

We ranged in age from 3 months to 78 years and had come from as far as Italy. Why not gather in Texas? I asked. The YMCA center is more centrally located, I was told, and it's in a beautiful spot at the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. No one would have to cook or clean and it's affordable. (In 1998, the cost per day for a family of four, including many activities [such as swimming, tennis and miniature golf] and two meals, will start at $135 to $175, far less than most resorts.) Don't expect gourmet meals or stellar accommodations, however. The food is basic dormitory fare, and the lodgings are simple. But there is plenty of room to accommodate even large groups: The 860-acre place can sleep 4,000.

And the staff is experienced at handling reunions; at 650 a year, more reunions take place here and at the YMCA's other Colorado property than anywhere else in the country. There's even an office to help organize special family activities such as campfires, hikes and relay races.

The summer week when we gathered--after booking more than a year in advance--the office was busy with 20 other reunions. Some were small, just 30 or so people, while others were larger than ours. You couldn't miss them in the dining hall, on the basketball court, bike paths and craft shop or waiting to get their photos taken. Like us, they were sporting reunion T-shirts. (Ours had a map of Texas on the back, overlaid with a family tree; on the front "Granny and Poppy, look what you've done!" referring to the grandparents who had died three decades before.) And the next generation of grandparents couldn't seem to stop smiling at the sight of everyone together.

"The older generation thinks this is very important," said Dave Thomas, a spokesman for the YMCA of the Rockies, which has been hosting family groups for the past 90 years. "We have families who haven't gotten along, and one of the reasons they're doing this is to bring everyone together," he added.

Thomas noted that the numbers of reunions appear to be increasing. "We already have requests for the year 2020," he said. (Plan two years ahead for the YMCA of the Rockies. Call [800] 777-YMCA.)

So once we got there, what did we do? One day 23 of us, including 11 kids, hiked to a mountain lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. Early another morning, an equally large group headed off for a white-water rafting trip on the Colorado River.

We roasted one great-aunt on her 60th birthday and my husband's younger brother on his 40th. We gathered at a tiny stone-and-log church for a memorial service to remember the relatives who were deceased, including one young cousin in her 30s who had died recently.

There were shaving-cream fights and late-night bull sessions. After dinner one evening, we watched a video painstakingly compiled by my father-in-law and sister-in-law from old photographs and family movies. They'd made sure everyone at the reunion was in it. Many of the adults were teary-eyed by the time it was over.

The older kids sat mesmerized by visions of their parents as children and their grandparents as young adults. That jaunty young soldier, was that really Grandpa? my 13-year-old son asked

By the time we left, the reunion had accomplished what the grandparents had hoped: We'd all reconnected with the family.

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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