Wednesday, July 12, 2000 Federal Way Mirror

Reunion illustrates the best meaning of family


By Maggie Ellis

    The first invitation dated June 10, 1903 read: "Yourself and your family are invited to attend the First Rinehart Annual Reunion of the descendants of Lewis and Elizabeth Rinehart, who crossed the plains to Oregon in 1854, which will be held July 14,15 and 16, 1903 two miles west of Summerville, Oregon on the James H. Rinehart "Old Homestead' where there is plenty of wood, water and grass and good camping ground."
    Come they did and they keep coming year after year. The exceptions were the war years of 1942=45 due to the shortage of gasoline.
    This year, I went along at the invitation of Federal Way attorney Preston Johnson. He is a great-great-grandson of these hardy souls who settled the Northwest. Each year a family unit acts as hosts to the Rinehart descendants. In June, he and his family hosted the 93rd reunion held in Sandy, Ore., beside the Barlow Trail traveled by their pioneer ancestors.
    After hearing about this reunion for years, my professional curiosity was stirred by a family that had managed to stay connected and assembled themselves every year for almost a century. I was more intrigued when I learned they had formed a nonprofit organization, for the purpose of sponsoring the reunions and other family history projects. One project has been a book about family history, anecdotes and genealogy. A yearbook that includes current family information is compiled each year.
    I wondered how they had managed to transcend the typical family rivalries, injured feelings, and power struggles that sabotage so many families. I thought I might learn something to help me in my work with others who want to either enrich or create a family network.
    I arrived at the noon cookout on Friday feeling awkward to be at a family reunion where I had not a drop of common blood. How would folks take my being there? By the time we sang "God Be with You till We Meet Again" at the Sunday closing, I had exchanged e-mail addresses and phone numbers with a half-dozen people. Several sought me out to hug and urge me to come again next year.
    I was right. This large and welcoming network of extended kin have a great deal to teach the rest of us who want to keep the history of our family alive.
    These folks have found ways to maintain a sense of family identity and history in spite of distance, time, age, religious and socio-economic differences.
    Acceptance and tolerance lay the foundation for their ability to meet, stay connected and enjoy each other at gatherings. As I listened to conversations, what I noticed most was what I didn't hear: Children weren't criticized; no one mentioned who had lost or gained weight, or whether Aunt Susie had colored her hair. I heard not comments about cousin John's  fourth marriage; no remarks were made about loose morale teen-agers nor their loud music.
    It is simply enough to a Rinehart by birth, marriage, or adoption and once family always family. I heard the story of one member, now deceased, who had married into the family. When his wife died, her remarried and brought wife No. 2 and then her children and grandchildren.
    It is multi-generational living. In some instances, four generations attended the reunion together. Elders are respected. Their memories and their stories are sought out. Children are enjoyed and encouraged to participate. The oldest woman present is 93, The youngest was 10 weeks old.
    Family identity starts young. Adults reported a common pattern of attending as children with their parents. This is often followed by years of nonattendance due to school, social activities, and establishing their own families. Once their families get older, they had more time and became active in the family organizations.
    Few of us have this kind of familial experience. Many of us wish we did. This family network took many years to develop. More than that, it took a few people willing to believe that which binds them together is greater and more important than their differences. It can begin with us.

Maggie Ellis is a certified mental health counselor and a marriage and family therapist.

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