Admittedly I've never been a big fan of family reunions. Some (a lot) of you know what I mean. It's a day or two of meeting (or re-meeting) people you should remember but don't, of paper plates and screaming kids, of baked beans and painful conversation, of watered-down tea and hot weather.
I'd try to make it to as many as I could, but to be honest, pretty much any excuse was good enough to keep me away. I'm not proud of it, but that's the way it is - and most of you know what I'm talking about.
Recently, however, a few things have started to chip away at my selfish attitude.
This summer, my grandfather passed away after a pretty long illness. It was a sad occasion to be sure. I loved him dearly, and think about him often. It's an interesting feeling when the person you are named after passes on.
Over those summer days, I was amazed at the attendance and support of our family members. From South Dakota, Colorado, Oklahoma and many more places they came. All to pay honor to a man they loved.
In June of this year, I was able to connect with a cousin of mine who I hadn't seen for a good while. She has been doing missions work in Romania for the last six years, setting up schools for children with disabilities in and around Bucharest.
I spent about a week with Heather, easily the most time we've spent together in one stretch in our lives. It was absolutely great though. We talked and talked about family, about who was sick, who was well, who was having children, and who was in trouble. She even reminded me of things I'd long ago forgotten about; during a conversation in which she was introducing me to one of her friends, she mentioned that she was the flower girl in my parent's wedding. Instantly a set of my folks' wedding pictures came flooding back into my mind, and yup - there she was holding the little basket in front of my mom. Wow.
Over that week, Heather went out of her way to show me around the Romanian countryside - taking me to see ruins of castles belonging to Dracula, old fortresses, huge dams and even a set of performances by the children of the local school. We had a grand time - one made even more special because we're family.
Most recently, I was fortunate enough to stay in southern Sweden with some family while I sorted out a few problems I was having with the Russian government. The amazing thing was, these family members put me up even though we'd never met before, and in my case, had only heard their names on one or two occasions.
On a random Wednesday in August, my hosts, Arnt and Marianne (who along with my great Aunt Vivian are our family's historians) drove me out to the Swedish countryside to see a farm. Now this may seem a bit boring to some of you, but for me, it was a bit of a pilgrimage. This particular farm belonged to our ancestors, dating back to the 1600s. Generations of our family lived and worked here before some of its branches started reaching out to America. Many of my family members in the states had made this same trip in the past - I joined the elite company of Pat and Bill, Dick and Ann, Vivian and a few others who have set eyes on "the farm."
Through the years, the farm has always been inhabited - first by our ancestors, and then a neighboring farmer who bought the farm in the 1800s. It is this family's descendants who live on and operate the farm today, and whose hospitality allows our family to make impromptu visits like today.
We pulled up to the farm and were greeted warmly by Stig and Berit, who were in the middle of re-plastering one of the additions to the farmhouse. We were literally treated like family - Arnt and Marianne introducing me and explaining my lineage. And, for you family members reading this - you should all know that Aunt Vivian is pretty much the family celebrity - everyone in our family (and even those who aren't) on two continents seem to know Vivian. Once her name came up, Stig and Berit's eyes lit up in recognition.
I walked around the farm taking pictures while the others caught up. It was quite a feeling walking the same ground my ancestors had lived and worked on. Seeing foundations and walls which protected my family generations ago was humbling.
As fate would have it, I had the chance to meet Stig and Berit's daughter, who just happened to be visiting today, who, with another guy, were working to gather honey from a bee hive located in back of the farm. Random? Yes. Interesting? Yup. She fortunately spoke pretty fluent English and translated everyone's discussion for me, and offered some explanations as to the farm's history, additions, notable stories, etc.
About an hour later we sat down in the back yard to a cup of tea and some amazing black currant pie which Berit had made earlier that day. And keep in mind - these people aren't technically related to us - they are just wonderfully hospitable, and know the value of showing people (in this case me) their heritage.
After we said our goodbyes, Arnt and Marianne drove me to a couple different nearby churches, where several of our ancestors are buried. They showed me their gravestones and told me about their place in the family tree. It was fascinating, and for the first time in my life - it really mattered. It meant something. We had a history - a lineage of which I was a part. It was like I just woke up.
Heather, Annika, Arnt and Marianne, thank you for opening my eyes. Thanks for showing me how important family is. We are all blessed to be a part of one, and we need to take care of it and understand it just like everything else we value.