So much of the news this August is about what tears our country apart – race, religion, politics, guns. But quietly, in backyards and public parks, cabins and resorts, people gather to celebrate and strengthen the simple fact of being part of the same family.
Fresh off a week of such celebrations – four generations converged in Minneapolis to celebrate my mom’s 95th birthday — it occurs to me that our country needs a reunion.
Or rather 10,000 reunions with guest lists drawn not by surname or bloodline but by more essential denominators – love of children, belief in equality, hard work and decency as guiding life principles, and a fierce desire to overcome the hate and division that lower our flags to half-mast and fill our hearts with fear and shame.
The family reunion can serve as a model. Separated by time zones and generation, we don’t always know each other well. Hugs help move past the awkwardness. So do silly games.
We don’t always agree, and in this winner-take-all age, our skill at navigating differences is pretty rusty. Listening, teasing and biting one’s tongue can help.
Sometimes avoidance is the best option. When one relative – a Trump supporter – visited this spring, we agreed not to talk politics or religion. That allowed us to see beyond the caricatures we’ve drawn of each other and talk about the rest of our lives. We finished the evening holding hands.
Sometimes we don’t even like each other all that well. There’s often a mean gossip, a bratty child, a cousin who drinks too much, a know-it-all sister. A stubborn few of us stay trapped in the slights and offenses from decades past.
Yet, we search for commonalities – bunioned feet, a love of gardening, the baby who looks like his great-uncle did at that age. We give tokens — old photos, favorite recipes, silver cufflinks – whose value comes from the act of giving.
Tattooed hipster and white-haired granny, atheist and believer, teetotaler and barfly, city slicker and small-town kid, we come together in the heat and fullness of the dwindling summer to eat too much, tell old stories, snap photos, remember our grandmother’s glorious pies. Together we conjure up the past and see into the future.
Of course, this is harder to do with strangers. Our foods, games and memories are different. Our languages may be as well. But it’s possible. At reunions, there’s always a new baby, new boyfriend and some relative who’s stayed away far too long. Generally, they’re welcomed into the fold because, well, we’re family.
One of Aesop’s fables describes a father who teaches his quarreling sons the importance of unity by handing them a bunch of sticks. One stick snaps easily. A bundle is impossible to break.
After 10 days of visitors and celebrations, I am eager to reclaim my life. But I am warmed by the knowledge that we strengthened old connections and built new ones. I feel freshly part of something larger and more enduring than my small self. And I wish this for my countrymen, my American family.