Making the Most of a Family Reunion
May 16, 2016
Last summer, thanks to some last minute flight deals, I was fortunate to be able to attend my first official family reunion! Although my mom’s immediate family gathers together frequently, this was a reunion for everyone descended from my 2x great-grandparents, so there were lots of family members attending who I had never even met before. Plus, it was held at my great-grandparents’ homestead in Saskatchewan, Canada.
Here are a few (hopefully helpful!) tips for attending a reunion to help you prepare to visit with family this summer and learn from my mistakes and successes:
1. Double-check your existing genealogical research. Before I left for the reunion, I dedicated a few days to doing a thorough review of that particular family branch. I finished up some of the “boring” updates/edits I had been putting off like scanning, attaching files, and cleaning up any duplicated facts. I also finished up some neglected descendancy work which I found very helpful in situating how the people I was meeting at the reunion fit into my tree. Because I tend to jump back and forth between lines quite a bit as I research, it was nice to have the relevant family information fresh in my mind while I was at the reunion.
2. Take a camera or scanner. If your family is anything like mine, most people will bring at least a small envelope or album of pictures to share. This was an amazing opportunity for me to have access to a lot of different picture collections all at once. My family’s reunion was hosted on my great-grandfather’s homestead in Saskatchewan, so there were lots of landmarks (the barn, schoolhouse, and general store) and scenery pictures that I wanted to take as well. Sadly, because it was a last minute arrangement, I didn’t have time to order a mobile scanner so I had to rely on my camera, but that was still much better than nothing. And of course, whatever electronics you bring, make sure to always have extra batteries/charger!
3. Suggest a family history session. If there isn’t already a formal family history session scheduled, offer to organize one. At my family’s reunion we had about an hour set aside on the first day for a presentation about the general family history. This was a really good way to get people to start talking about family stories!
4. Make sure your research is accessible for sharing. Once people realize you are interested in genealogy, they will often want to see your more of research outside of a formally organized family history session, so make sure you have a few good stories or finds prepared to share with people. This is when having the Ancestry.com app on my phone was very useful, as the home that the reunion was held at did not have Internet access so I wasn’t able to show any of my online trees and research. In retrospect, I wish I had a desktop software downloaded beforehand as it was hard to really show details on photos or documents on just my little phone screen.
5. Listen to (and record) stories. At my family’s reunion, there were many people present from the older generations, so I found it incredibly fascinating to discuss the stories that added context and color to the lives of ancestors who I didn’t have the chance to meet. I also noticed that for more delicate family stories I sometimes inferred more by staying quiet and letting people talk as if I already knew what happened, than by asking direct questions about the topic. Don’t forget to record these stories in some way, even if it seems like an unforgettable tale at the time.
6. But don’t be afraid to speak up. Sometimes I find it intimidating being the youngest person interested in genealogy,especially when I’m in a room full of older family members who actually know some of the people being talked about. But sharing research and knowledge can help establish you as the person to come to with family history questions or to share artifacts, pictures, etc. Politely correct those wild family tales if you have found evidence to the contrary. For example, at my family’s reunion someone said that our relatives who fought in WWI were twin snipers who were killed on the last day of the war, when in fact they were just two brothers who served, one as a sniper, and were killed in 1917 and 1918. Speaking up in this instance not only prevented incorrect lore from being passed on, but also resulted in a number of people starting genealogy-related conversations with me over the course of the weekend.
7. Connect with living relatives. This is the main thing that I wish I had done better. When I got home from the reunion, I realized that somehow in all my excitement about the historical photos and family stories, I had only taken exactly ONE picture of any of the living relatives present! I really wish I had arranged a group photo and just in general documented the present better. Also make sure to share your contact information with all the new family members you are meeting. Keep in mind that a lot of the older people may not be on social media (or even have e-mail!), so be sure to get phone numbers or addresses as appropriate in case you want to follow up on something that was discussed once you get home.
Hopefully these tips will be useful and help you have an enjoyable reunion that builds on connections with living family while also being beneficial for deepening your genealogical research.
Chelsea Ruiter is a twenty-three year old genealogist who is passionate about uncovering the stories in her family history. Originally from Canada’s west coast, she now lives in Ottawa and is currently working towards a Masters degree in International Affairs. Her genealogy blog can be found at Time Wanderer.