At Random: Time, not miles, splits family

My in-laws recently held a family reunion — a gathering that, like all traditions, was meant to celebrate what endures in a world of change.

But even the rituals of reunions, so seemingly unaltered from year to year, slowly evolve to meet new challenges, new possibilities.

This summer, for example, there weren’t quite as many phone calls before my wife’s family assembled, as they’ve done so often, in a rented hall to exchange hugs and tall tales.

There wasn’t as much need to dial up aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents to sort out who was attending and who was not, and when they might arrive, and whether there would be enough ice for soft drinks or dessert for the buffet. Most of the reunion planning this year was done on Facebook, a medium that hadn’t been invented when I joined the family two decades ago.

And notably absent from this year’s reunion was the large white screen on which, in other years, I’ve seen home movies projected for the extended clan. Instead, some footage from Easter 1984 had been transferred to a digital file, available for viewing on a laptop near the refreshment table, over by the eight kinds of cake and the big pan of brisket.

After lunch, a bunch of us stood around the laptop, as if warming our hands at a hearth, to watch a film of Uncle Earl and Aunt Ro, now departed, as they hunted for Easter eggs three decades ago.

Earl and Ro both outrace the kids in this comic documentary, running pell-mell through lawn and shrubbery in the search for holiday loot. Each of them bears not a basket, but a 5-gallon bucket to collect the bounty. That was so like them. They treated life as a large thing, the biblical cup that runneth over.

Abundance is what these family reunions promise each year — the new babies, the teens grown taller, and we older folks deepening, we hope, with some greater share of wisdom to complement our expanding waistlines.

What we want most of all, I guess, is more time, or a sense of time moving more slowly. It’s not really geography, after all, that divides the various wings of the family; most of us live in south Louisiana.

What keeps us apart, more than the miles, is busyness — the churning of days into soccer matches and office jobs, dental appointments and dance recitals, housework and email.

This urgency of modern life, what passes for progress, brings blessings, too. Thanks to the miracle of technology, extended families can meet virtually now, connecting between reunions in digital communities.

But since there’s no real online substitute for affirming the ties that bind, my wife’s kinfolk will continue to meet the old-fashioned way, too — peering into faces that look reassuringly like their own, and remembering, once more, the people to whom they belong.

Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.