Building Family Traditions — And Building On Them

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Nearly twenty years ago, some of my siblings started worrying about our larger family. “The old folks are leaving,” they said, “and pretty soon, there will be no one left except our generation-the ‘cousins.'” Our mother came from a family of nine brothers and sisters, while our dad had eleven, so we were blessed with plenty of fun cousins and doting uncles and aunts. It was a great situation-all of us kids growing up together, visiting one another in the summers, and getting into trouble together. Now, with our parent’s generation aging, we all decided we needed to see each other on a regular basis.

Family reunion. The very term conjures up all kinds of crazy images-weird uncles, rambunctious kids, silly cousins. We sent out letters to everyone and for a couple of years tried holding reunions at various city parks and lake homes. Nothing really ‘took’, however, until we got smart and decided to hold the get-together at the only logical site-the old family homeplace.


Our maternal grandparents-Virge and Sarah Kilgore-bought several hundreds of acres of woodland and farmland just inside Winston County, Alabama, right after the turn of the 20th century and cleared land for a house. It was an old-fashioned breezeway-down-the-center home, with two bedrooms on each side and a kitchen in the back. Most of their children were born there, including my mother Lois in 1916. Grandpa built a barn and a blacksmith shop and later a garage to house his car. He died in 1949, Granny died in 1963, and no one has lived there since. But all the buildings still stand just as they left them. So, every two years, my Uncle Cecil-who owns the property now-and some of the men get out the tractors and bush-hog the surrounding fields and open up the house and we have a reunion on the Saturday before Memorial Day.

I will never forget the first reunion, Memorial Day weekend of 1994, because my wife almost did not let me come. Our daughter-in-law Julie-she and Neil live a mile from us in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie-was due to give birth to their first-born at that very time. I assured Margaret I would make the reunion and not miss the birth. On Friday, I made the 7 hour drive home and on Saturday we held the reunion. They had brought in tables and chairs from the church and union hall, we spread lunch together and got reacquainted with each other and all the children and grandchildren. That night, we built a bonfire and pulled the chairs into a circle and reminisced and sang and got silly.

I asked who remembered the murder of Mrs. Boshell just up the road in the fall of 1951. Over the next half hour, we heard from family members who had seen the murderer the afternoon before his deed, from several who had seen the body of the poor victim lying on her front porch before the sheriff even arrived, from one who participated in the manhunt, and from another who skipped high school classes to attend the trial. Someone brought up another subject and we were off in that direction. We swapped stories and shared laughter around the fire until eleven o’clock. A 16-year-old second cousin from South Carolina, learning about her roots for the first time, said, “This has been the greatest day of my life.”

Next day most of us attended New Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church, the only church our grandparents ever belonged to, the church where Mom and Dad met in 1930. My brother Ron, a pastor from Birmingham, and I were the preachers that morning. Afterward, our family treated the entire church to lunch in the fellowship hall. Later, we returned tables and chairs to the church and union hall and returned to Mom and Dad’s home exhausted. Cousin Bill, a chiropractor in central Alabama, called out, “Who wants an adjustment?” I lay on the floor for the next half hour while he massaged every muscle in my stressed-out body. When he finished, I lay there in pure bliss. Someone wanted to play rummy-the family’s only card game-so we divided into foursomes for some friendly competition and teasing. About 4:30, the phone rang. Someone yelled, “Joe, Margaret says Julie has gone to the hospital to have the baby.”

I jumped up and said, “I’m headed to New Orleans everybody. I love you.” And bolted out the door for the long drive, so thankful for that relaxing massage. At Lakeside Hospital in Metairie, the Gatwood family and Margaret were standing watch while Julie went through a difficult delivery. In the wee hours of the morning, some went home for a few hours sleep. Early the next afternoon-on Memorial Day—Grant Waller McKeever was born to a thoroughly exhausted mother and a deliriously happy family.

It had been one of the greatest weekends of my life. Saturday, May 29, is our next reunion. Grant turns 10 the next day. In my mind, he will always be associated with the family’s first really great reunion.

Family. Is there anything better?

A few days ago, I was driving Grant and his little sister Abby back from a playground. Abby, who is 7, and I got into some silly banter about how much we love each other. It ends up with “I love you with all my heart and soul and toothpaste and mustache and grandma.” Abby said, “We made that up, didn’t we, Grandpa?” I said, “Yes, we did. Why do you think we like to be so silly?” Abby said, “It’s a family tradition.” I’m still laughing at that.

We have lots of traditions in this family. Silliness is one of them. As is faith. And laughter. And getting together to love and reminisce.

Families need traditions. If you have a family and no traditions, go get you some. Your children will be needing them. I recommend Deuteronomy 6 as a great place to start.

6 thoughts on “Building Family Traditions — And Building On Them

  1. I am an only child, my Mother had two siblings who were not close and my Father had 9, but very few came while I was growing up, so I missed all that fun and fellowship. We have only one child and she only has one, but her husband has two sisters and they are a close, fun loving family and our daughter and grandson are getting to know some of the pleasure you speak of. It is a great story and fortunately those of us who have never experienced it don’t really know what we have missed. Only children really do miss a lot. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Joe I have been reading your words now for many years, but this brought many wonderful thoughts and tears to me.

    Two weeks ago our two sons and I played golf at Peeble Beach. While we were playing at another course the next day, I observed these two men joking and jostling each other and I cried out in great joy for how I’ve been blest by God with them and the memories that we have living together.

    Thanks again for your wonderful insights and courage to share them with a world that is so hungry for connectedness!!!!

    God’s richest blessing to you

    TimHolcomb

  3. This has freshened a constant memory for me. My parents sacrificed themselves to provide a lakeside cabin Clay County Alabama. We were the official holders of the family reunion for many years. It was alot of work to get ready for and clean up after, but we had a great time each year. My legs and back ache just thinking about all the hours of swimming and water skiing we did. Joe,Thanks for the stroll down memory lane, but most of all…Thanks Mom & Dad!

  4. Dear Joe,

    I do not know if you received my first message when I got your final writing before leaveing FBC. Congratulations on your new call. I know God is going to bless you and the work in “The city that care forgot.” I know it is a great challenge. Our prayers are with you.

    THANKS FOR THE REUNION PIECE. IT BRINGS BACK MANY FOND MEMORIES.

    In Him,

    Arnett McCoy

  5. Joe:

    Once again you’ve toucched me with your insightfulness! We called our organzier Big Annie as opposed to Sunset Ann and all of the others of our family. We gathered every year at the family home on the 4th of July. I am constantly aware of those same kind of stories, including the Tommy Whoop road, nightshirt parades and fish-fries at 10:00 at night. Thanks Joe!

  6. Joe,

    I was just re-reading this and you’re so right. That tradition has meant the world to me ever since we started it 10 years ago (I know who that 16 year old 2nd cousin was!!) 🙂

    It was wonderful to see you again and I’m so glad Rick got to meet you. He’s heard me talk about you and the reunion ever since we first met and I’m happy he finally got to attend his first one. Thanks for all your great stories! I love you.

    -Elizabeth