Commentary Magazine


Family Reunion

Social critics often decry the absence of ritual in our culture, noting that our hunger for ritual leads us to devise all manner of pomp and circumstance, some of it as foolish as a conclave of Shriners in funny hats, some of it as ominous as a troop of Ku Klux Klanners in hoods. In their headlong rush down this inviting ideological path, however, critics may miss altogether the multitude of pompless rituals that engage us in our ordinary lives. Not merely birthdays and holidays, but such simple festivities (or ordeals) as the evening dinner and the favorite TV program may qualify in this category.

By far the most powerful ritual to celebrate the institution of the family is the family reunion, a gathering of interconnected family units, spanning several generations, related by blood or marriage. The occasion may be a wedding, a birth, a death, an anniversary. Or the reunion may arise out of no impulse other than a mutually felt obligation that the clan should gather again. Indeed, many families have regular, scheduled gatherings, the gathering together itself providing both the occasion and the regularity.

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Some years ago I attended a reunion on the occasion of my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. In my memory the event has unfortunately merged with an 8-mm movie, which I tend to confuse with my actual recollection. Still, in both the movie and my memory a cousin cradles my infant son and sings “Bill Bailey” to him. In the movie he merely mouths the song, but in my mind his voice is true and confident, not very different from what it was when he was a Dartmouth undergraduate home for the holidays with all the newest songs in his repertoire, and I was only a callow thirteen, dazzled by his sophistication and assurance. I remind myself that he has had two coronaries, three marriages. And I see his father's face hidden in his face. His father, my favorite uncle, my father's oldest brother. If I try hard I can even find my father's face somewhere in his features as I am sure he can find my own father in my features. This is but a small instance. Actually there is a profusion of small and large family resemblances to be seen in this gathering. There is something unnerving about all this resemblance, as though we all wore masks. Or as though we were science-fiction creatures all of whom developed from the same intergalactic spore.

In watching my cousin, then a man of about fifty-five, singing to my baby, reminding me of the person he had been, or seemed to both of us to have been, so many years earlier, it crossed my mind to wonder at what he was doing. Had it become his habit, at his age, to dandle infants on his knee and croon hits from the 20's to them? Would he, when he left this party, search out someone else's newborn, in order to repeat the performance? Not likely. The performance, and surely that is exactly what it was, was for me, for him. He was performing a version of himself we both remembered and could endorse as genuine, if not to this time and place, then to some other, then to history. He was identifying himself in the group portrait.

I also appear briefly in this movie (my wife and I took turns behind the camera). I appear in a manner that perhaps tends to justify its existence, for what I behold on the screen is not what I would likely have remembered. I am first glimpsed standing in the corner of the patio chatting with a young man, my nephew. My head is slightly inclined toward him as he speaks; I am looking noticeably thoughtful and attentive. Later, the party and the camera move into the house, and I may be seen sitting near my mother as she opens and exclaims and weeps over her anniversary gifts. Despite the extremely dim light of this indoor scene, it is clear that I am still looking noticeably thoughtful and attentive.

Prodded by this pictorial record, I have to acknowledge that a portion of my consciousness on that occasion was occupied with how I appeared, not merely to my nephew, or my mother, or the camera, but to the entire company. I was not dissembling—exactly. I was then and am now a thoughtful and attentive person, as befits my age, profession, and character. On the other hand, I wasn't breezing through the afternoon, looking bored if bored, wandering away if distracted—letting the chips fall as they might.

My wife, too, turns up now and again in this movie, and she offers an entirely different dish, but clearly part of the same banquet. She is seen having a very good time, time after time, talking and laughing animatedly with a number of people, not singing, not looking especially thoughtful, but doing her own little number in her own way. “It's the jolly me,” she says. “It didn't feel too bad at the time, but please don't make me look at it again.” This movie, by mutual consent, is not shown often at our house.

Yet let me point out, while neither of us relishes witnessing ourselves performing these—or any—versions of ourselves, neither of us felt that he or she—or the other—falsified himself in any important way. What we were attempting—what everyone there was attempting—was to provide a sort of snapshot identity by which the company might refer to us, evaluate us, if they would (and they would, they would); a stereotype, to be sure, yet one that did not, we hoped, deliberately misrepresent our more private conditions.

This matter of stereotypes is worth dwelling on for a moment. We present ourselves and see one another as stereotypes at a family reunion not in order—or not merely—to deceive, but in order both to create and to survive the event.

As for the creation of the event: the purpose of a family reunion, after all, is not to take everyone's spiritual temperature, but to confirm this family, as a family (and through this family all families, Family itself). Naturally, the subject of the occasion is the family, and the most significant expression of this subject is the updating, the revising, of the Family Chronicle, for which purpose each individual must be ticked off in time and place and worldly enterprise; his accomplishments must be reviewed and measured against his earlier promise. All this may have relatively little to do with his private, subjective concerns, but the Family Chronicle does not record its members' progress—or lack of it—toward the moral life, and perhaps we should be grateful for that. It does not ask, “Are you a good person?” but “How are you getting on in the world?”; and since that is a question the world often asks us in its own many ways, it need not be considered impudent or unfair. On this great secular Day of Judgment the family seeks to chart its own worldly progress, which is the only progress it can measure or understand. The family is an entity, but it is not a person; it has no collective subjective dimension; its concern, in addition to its history, is with its survival, its prosperity—these being its rough equivalent of moral goals.

So, evaluations are in order, and evaluations are made, usually quite shrewdly, if not harshly. The stereotyping of the individual members is merely a convenience, and usually it is not rigid, but quite responsive to change. Ratings rise and fall as fortunes are made or lost, promising marriages sour and children fall from the fold, or new marriages bring new expectations and new children.

As for surviving the event, the dealing in stereotypes can be a welcome protection against what could amount to a massive personal assault. Can you imagine a houseful or yardful or banquet-hall full of family members all intent on having profound, private exchanges with one another? It could produce mass slaughter. One of the cardinal rules of conduct for the family reunion is: Don't get personal. Nothing must really happen.

Further, the “catching-up” sort of exchange that goes on provides an objectification of one's life that is by and large outside experience—or, at any rate, outside one's customary self-awareness. It may offer a convenient, even a comforting frame for one's own private story.

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One's private story is separate from the Family Chronicle—surely, at least, they are not identical. The Chronicle, that compilation of events—births, deaths, marriages, divorces, graduations, retirements, promotions, demotions, not to mention moves, accidents, diseases, crises, surprises, tricks and winks of fate—this record constitutes the family story. Few families are without their amateur archivists—those devoted chroniclers whose energetic gift for comprehensive “catching-up” is matched only by their extraordinary powers of absorption and recall. This is probably one of the crudest forms of history ever written—indeed, it is usually never written; it is an oral record, often buttressed with photographs, letters, passports, clippings, and other magical documents; it is also one of the most compelling forms of history we will ever know, for two reasons: 1) It is our first existential experience of history itself; and 2) it is not our own story, but the story to which our lives belong. It is our first experience of history as story—how many of us, as children, did not beg our parents, “Tell me a story about when you were little,” and how many have not heard our own children repeat the plea? When this tradition of storytelling is once begun, books have a hard time competing—until the children are ready for real books; and even then, they read their books, and still ask an immoderate and unanswerable number of questions about how it was when we were they. Children are passionate historians and “storians.” So are we.

Our two accounts—our own story and our role in the family story—will maintain a lively dialectic all our lives. They will seem to merge only to reassert their independence, but this they share: we can no more escape the one than the other.

If, by its stereotyping as well as by its proliferating and disturbing resemblances, the family reunion seems to oppose individuality, so does it also, again with its resemblances as well as with its ruthless Chronicle, oppose anonymity.

When I was a boy I looked upon these reunions with sharp skepticism. Our blood tie, I would complain, was not a sufficient reason for all of us to carry on as though we had things in common—like friends, for example. My experience of the actual occasions was usually bearable—I did have some relatives of whom I was fond—but not joyous; I disliked—perhaps even feared—the judging and reckoning, and I disliked the interminable bragging of parents about their children. They would labor the large and puff up the small accomplishment, or, in the absence of accomplishment, dwell on their children's deference and devotion. A good deal of lying would be necessary to explain away failure and to exalt the minor achievement. Fortunate the parents whose children were both successful and devoted, although seldom fortunate enough to be able to resist a bit of boastful lying themselves.

What I recall most vividly, however, is that the entity of the family, with its uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, cousins, seemed to obliterate any claim to individuality, no matter how overweening the effort. In the midst of my boredom I thought I would never succeed in escaping or transcending this family, which would continue to multiply and wander even as I would. Even if I were to change my name and settle in Australia, I would eventually be found out by a third cousin who had also ventured to Australia, no doubt for identical reasons. And the one who had fled last could tell the one who had fled first how his departure had been set into the Chronicle, how often the family spoke of him, speculated about him, making him present in his absence. (One reason for the popularity of the movie The Godfather was its near sanctification of the family, which was seen to be larger than caste or class or culture or geography.)

For the family is, indeed, inescapable. You may revile it, renounce it, reject it—but you cannot resign from it; you are born into it, and it lives within and through you, to the end of your days. This may be inspiring, it may also be very annoying; in either case it is humbling.

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Family reunions differ from one another in mood and style (a funeral will obviously not have the same tone as a wedding), and from one family to another, but on the whole I think the similarities, surprisingly, are more striking than the differences.

On the issue of resemblances, more is at stake here than literal facial structure. Families seem to have particular styles and themes that run through them in uncanny variation and repetition, making it possible, for example, immediately to spot a family connection between two remote cousins who hardly know each other and share no physical resemblance at all. And however much the composition of the family may change, and the fates of individuals may alter, this thematic behavior seems to persist, almost as though it had a life of its own. This is particularly apparent in families where power relations are a controlling concern. Reversals and retributions of extraordinary dramatic force may occur as individuals rise to and fall from positions of power, without disturbing the thematic continuity that seems to govern the particular family. On the occasion of a family reunion it is the theme that will be apparent, not the drama, whose real events—those that led to and established a changed situation among the family members—will all have occurred offstage. As I mentioned earlier, one of the first rules of a family reunion is: Nothing must move.

This can be a hard rule both to learn and to keep. At my parents' anniversary my wife was more or less on display, since she and our baby were the newest additions to the central family, and she was meeting many of the clan for the first time. I asked her whether she had, in fact. enjoyed herself as much as she seemed to. Yes, she said, she had, except for Millie and Sam.

Millie and Sam were a married couple my parents' age—they, like my parents, are no longer living—who were members of our extended family, but who had also, accidentally, so to speak, known my wife since she was a child. She had not only a long and profound affection for them, they were important figures to her all her adult life, probably more than either of them knew. She saw them only very occasionally in those years, and much had happened since the last time they met. She had been looking forward particularly to seeing them again.

“I couldn't call off the party to be with them,” she said, “so I had to be with them on the party's terms. There were no quiet empty corners we could slip into and talk in any real way, and those flying hugs and kisses and catching-up clatter just don't represent our relationship at all. We pressed each others' hands a lot, and looked into each others' eyes, and so on, but what all that amounted to was just a disagreeable cheapening of what I feel for them, which is serious, and very private and quiet, and doesn't, apparently, have a convenient public form. There I stood, with these people I loved, my arms around them, longing to say something that would be true, about me, about them, about our relation—and unable to speak a sensible word. It was painful.”

Ironic though it may be, a family reunion is not an occasion that offers much scope to this major human concern, love, either as a personal emotion, pleasurable or not, or as a sacred duty, possible or not. Affection among members of this party may be commonplace and deep; it may also be virtually absent; these conditions will be reflected in differences in the quality, but not the necessity, of the occasion. Regardless of how instrumental affection is, or is not, in determining the shape and style of this family, it has no governing purpose—and has even a restricted place—on the occasion of a reunion. Affection may be felt; it may be expressed, for that can be handled symbolically; but it must not actually be exercised, for the exercise of love between people is an event that moves lives, and on the occasion of this collective portrait nothing must move; it would blur the picture. What is praised here is not persons, or the relationships between persons, whatever the nature of those relationships, but the state, the condition, of relatedness itself. What is honored is not the chosen connectedness that characterizes our friendships, and indeed may prevail within our intimate families as well, but that connectedness whose reality lies entirely outside our inclination, and whose inescapability is, therefore, absolute.

So far as the occasion is concerned, I think some of the most deeply felt and cherished—and enjoyed—family reunions tend to occur at funerals. The pace of the event is slow, the mood reflective, intimate. People draw closer together to speak of the past, to frame that part of the story that holds the life that is gone. The young, especially, are instructed in the Chronicle, as their elders make fresh discoveries, new connections with their heritage. Death broods over the company, foretelling but also enhancing the lives of the living, whether they are harshly grieving or merely wondering at the eternal struggle between finality and endurance.

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What, we are entitled to ask, does a family reunion have to tell us about ordinary life—life, and family life?

On the surface, very little, if we are looking for correspondences, references. Daily life within that irreducible unit of willed and unwilled connection that we have learned to call the “nuclear family” differs in every important way from the experience of a family reunion.

At a family reunion all is stasis; time stands still, so that an image of the structure that exists only in time may be conceived and grasped in that stilled moment.

Family life, on the other hand, is all flow; living it is rather like a trip down a treacherous river in a small canoe; we spend a lot of time keeping the craft afloat, shooting the rapids. There are, of course, calmer passages as well, blessedly uneventful, unexpected havens of simple routine—and in these quieter periods perhaps we will merely rest, perhaps we will look around, get our bearings, mark changes in the current, note the altered features of the countries we are passing through.

If the family reunion offers us a primer of birth and aging and death, family life constitutes the workbook, or the lab manual, for the same course.

Family life is much concerned with the passage of time: from now to next spring and graduation; from now to someone's birthday, next month; from now to the meeting this weekend; from now to lunch; and from all the nows that came before and pointed to this one.

The flow of family life, with its turbulence and calm, is actually a double current of time and activity. Now and then one or the other may predominate, at times they seem quite out of phase, even in conflict. Time may be experienced as boredom, or anticipation, or change. Activity may be simply an inertia of exertion on a single spot, or it may be felt as significant movement. In any case, this flow, in which time is always passing and we are sometimes truly moving—not with it, but within it—and sometimes still, “marking time” it is said—this flow is very much part of our awareness of life together in a family. Events occur that punctuate and dramatize the flow itself. Children are born, they grow, they grow up, they go away from us toward their own lives, our own parents die, our friends die, it is growing late, it is years since we began.

What is it that we think of, when we think of ourselves and the time—and the times—that are gone? We want: to have lived honorably, to have mattered—to our time and to one another, to have had a meaning . . . we want, we want; meanwhile the potatoes are burning and the gas man is here to read the meter. What family life teaches us about time is that it goes—that what it brings or gives or permits, it also transforms or hardens or takes away. We learn that family life is a passionate daily traffic in perishables, and that what endures, in joy or grief, is seldom what we knew or chose.

Family life is personal life. The people within it play “roles” for one another, as we like to point out these days, but these roles are useful, flexible conventions (like everything else under the sun of course they can be abused); we can hide out inside them when we need relief, we can find a wealth of opportunity for expression and communication within them, and, we discover, we can transcend them altogether in moments when we reach one another deeply in one way or another. Family members talk a lot to one another and some of it is real talk. Family members move around and about in relation to one another, giving and taking their first—and thousandth—lessons in pride, anger, forgiveness, envy, betrayal, and love. A child growing up in a nuclear family learns that a human being is a creature who: is born into a family he did not choose., has needs and feelings and thoughts and ambitions—which are, or are not, filled, expressed, shared, and encouraged—and eventually becomes an independent individual, ready to address the world—and the family that nurtured him—on his own terms.

What endures for an individual is his individuality—his experience of his individuality, and that occurs in the now, connected, of course, to many other nows of personal consequence. An individual, inspired with subjectivity, spurred by the urgencies of personality, armed with self, single-handedly takes on time in mortal combat. Time wins, of course, but the battle may be glorious. We are all, needless to say, individuals, and most of us are the better for it.

But a human being is more than this, too. There are realities to his existence that seldom penetrate his consciousness because they are not directly perceived in experience, but may be brought to awareness through metaphor. At a family reunion a person may glimpse his own life in a way that does not belong to his ordinary perceptions.

As he looks from the oldest members at the gathering, many of whom may not be present at the next reunion, to the youngest, who were not here the last time, he can conceive an image of his own life as a trajectory in time, an arc that began at one point, and will end at another, creating a tangible shape, and linking those points to a far huger but still tangible network of interconnecting arcs. That is, he sees his life as a whole, not as a series of experiences, but as a single act—a thing, real, objective, unique. He sees that his existence has a dimension in reality that is beyond his experience—almost, but perhaps not quite, beyond his comprehension.

He, who thought his existence was his own, belonged to him, is abruptly reeducated. His experience, which is his own, has taught him that living is a process of tracing on sand—that some patterns are deeper, or larger, or more beautiful than others, but that the wind and the water ultimately wash over all. Now, at this family reunion, as he beholds the great chain of generation (to which he belongs), threading its way through the present moment, linking the old to the young, the dead to the unborn, and as he sees that it contains—and is contained by—his own life, he imagines his life taking its particular place in a vast, organic, historical continuity.

In the same process by which time is constantly erasing its own surface, it is forming the deep structure that we never see—and that may be apprehended only through imagery—wherein our disappearing lives are set in stone. For, beneath the sand there is rock; the rock is shaped, is being shaped, will be shaped—by us, by our lives, by our tracings in the sand.

A human being, the family reunion teaches, is a creature who: is born into a family, lives without and within it, colors and shapes it with his being, brings to it his gifts, his acts, replenishes it with his children, and diminishes it—his final shaping—with his own death.

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