Family reunions are a long-standing tradition that may have new inspiration since the pandemic.
RTOERO members are happy to bring a large group of people together, the classic family reunion with potato salad and pictures in the park. But our members are just as likely to call an intimate gathering of close family a reunion.
Either way, they know the value of having someone plan ahead, take the lead and work with others to make a reunion happen.
Donelda Schwartzentruber (District 16 City of Toronto), née Stiles, organized the first-ever Stiles family reunion in 2022. The spark? Realizing her father’s family of 14 had all passed away, and she was the glue connecting the descendants.
“Many of my first cousins have no idea who some of the others are, and they’re spread out from coast to coast,” she says. “I’m the one who knows where everyone is. I thought, if I don’t connect them, who will?”
In mid-2020, Schwartzentruber discovered that their home town of Brussels, Ont., was holding its 150th anniversary on the Civic Holiday weekend in 2022. She had already been working on the Stiles family tree, so she had email addresses and details of births, marriages and deaths. It seemed the perfect time to gather the family. She met with about seven other cousins to plan the reunion. On the outskirts of Brussels, she found and booked a hall with a kitchen, a ball diamond and an area for barbecuing. Visitors were responsible for their own accommodations.
The event drew 64 people from across Canada. Games for kids included baseball, tag and throwing hoops over bottles. People could guess how many jelly beans were in a jar, and prizes went to family members who came the farthest distance or whose birthday was closest. Adults assembled a float for the town parade and contributed food for lunch. Some toured the Stiles family home. All received the detailed family tree Schwartzentruber had created.
“Afterwards, my mom said, ‘Donelda, this needs to become a yearly thing,’” Schwartzentruber says.
Carolyn Gotay (District 42 Mainland British Columbia) revived a dormant family tradition with a Zoom reunion early in the pandemic. She knew that one arm of her family had regularly held a reunion when her mother was a child. The Imhof family originally came from Germany and settled in Pennsylvania with other German-speaking immigrants. Gotay’s grandfather, Adam, was the oldest of six siblings. As the years went by and the “Stupendous Six” passed away, the reunions petered out.
“Then my cousin Cathy, my sister Pam and I connected on [genetic testing site] 23andMe,” Gotay says. The reunion in Pennsylvania was back on; that is, until the pandemic scuttled the plans.
Gotay kept in touch, and the cousins worked to find relatives and gauge interest in a Zoom reunion.
“We didn’t have a list of email addresses, but I’m a researcher and used to ferreting out information,” Gotay says. “Pam is great at networking, and Cathy was in touch with a lot of the family. Together, we came up with a good roster of relatives of our generation and our parents’ generation.”
They booked a Zoom call for 1.5 hours. They used SurveyMonkey to gather “fun facts” about people and came up with 10 questions to get the conversation going, like who was named after the original six and who played an instrument.
“We ended up with 25 participants,” Gotay says. “We connected a lot of people who had never met, and others who hadn’t seen one another for a long time. People shared memories, and we learned about traditions our mother had told us about, like Moravian sugar cake. It turned out to be even more fun than Pam, Cathy and I had hoped.”
Reunions don’t have to be big to be meaningful, but the same principles apply: looking for opportunities to meet and planning ahead.
Keep it simple
“Share the work — set-up, food, cleanup — OR rent a location. Just make sure the location is accessible for everyone in the family. Keep the food choices simple. A barbecue works well and people can bring their own food. Have activities that will get people out of their chairs and mingling; even in families, people have cliques they prefer to sit with and interact with.”
Allison Sears (District 20 Frontenac, Lennox & Addington)
“Cruise ships or a resort are good ways of having an intergenerational holiday or gathering. Everyone can do a favourite activity separately and then gather at meals to share daily stories or experiences.”
Betty Donaldson (District 47 Vancouver Island)
“Plan in advance, prepare as much as possible beforehand, and keep it simple!”
Marisa De Angelis (Actively employed member)
“Get out the old photo albums and try to ‘recognize’ relatives not seen for several decades.”
Albert Peter Braekevelt (District 38 Lambton)
“Invite all members, even the ‘difficult’ ones. Have great music — a live band if possible — lots of games, have it catered and hold it in an off-site public rented space.”
Alfred Guidolin (District 12 Norfolk)
Agnes Sebastian (District 11 Waterloo Region) had a small in-person gathering in June 2022. Her son Tristan lives in B.C. and was going to be home for a week, so Sebastian planned ahead. She hosted 22 family members for dessert and coffee, setting up both inside and outside.
She also took the lead on a cousins’ reunion in the summer of 2021. She was born in Austria, and a cousin was visiting from Vienna. Sebastian invited all the cousins in Canada to a barbecue while the Austrian family was in town.
She ended up with 16 people, from Vancouver Island, Toronto, Waterloo and Vienna. Local guests were invited to bring chairs and an appetizer or dessert. They set up outside Sebastian’s home for a casual area to connect and chat.
“What makes reunions memorable is getting people to talk,” Sebastian says. “Sometimes to get people mingling, I’ll ask someone to come and help me, and then they can go back to the group and talk to others.”
Honey Thomas (District 39 Peel) also considers a “reunion” to be a small gathering of friends or family who “rejoice at the opportunity to see one another.” In her case, a recent joyous occasion was introducing her new granddaughter to her cousins on Boxing Day 2022.
“There were eight of us, including the newborn, and we all took turns holding the baby,” Thomas says. “This was also our Christmas/Hanukkah get-together. We typically do elements from all the ethnic backgrounds in the family: German, French, English, Ukrainian, Polish, Jamaican, Jewish — so the children will know and love all their backgrounds.”
Family meals are normally potluck, or they order in. The family will all pitch in, the older grandkids set the table, and various people do cleanup together. Children may watch a movie later or play board games that they set up to teach the others after dinner.
Thomas adds, “Don’t kill yourself preparing a gourmet feast so that you’re too tired to enjoy it — people are there for each other, not to be part of a House & Garden spread. Keep it simple. It’s family, not the Queen!”
Family reunions are a long-standing tradition, but the one held by the Baker family of St. Thomas, Ont., may take the (sheet) cake.
Believed to be Canada’s longest consecutively running family reunion, it’s taken place on the third Saturday of every June since 1898 to celebrate the arrival in Canada of William and Mary Baker and their 10 children in 1897. In 2020 and 2021, of course, assorted Bakers got together on Zoom.
At its core, the annual reunion is a day filled with family fun, catching up and memorabilia, Jay Baker told Global News. He’s a descendant of the Baker family and one of about 10 relatives who make sure the reunion lives on.