Louis Albert traveled from Shostakovich, Russia, to Omaha, Neb., in the early 1900s at the age of 14. Life would be good in Omaha, assured an immigration officer in Galveston, Texas, where Louis initially landed. He was right. Ten years later, the newcomer had earned enough to get his sisters Celia, Dora and Riva to the States as well. Together they would form the roots of the Albert family tree in the nation's heartland--one with long branches that would eventually stretch from Los Angeles to Denver to Mendham, N.J.
Last summer, 42 of the family descendants converged on Omaha to pay tribute to Louis (who died in 1991) and his siblings. Planned by five of the cousins, the event spanned a three-day weekend in October 2003. The group retraced the lives of their pioneering ancestors by visiting their synagogue, businesses and even Louis' home, where the current owner, seeing a busload of people in front of his house, invited them all in for coffee. (They politely declined.)
For many of us, family reunions aren't the way we want to spend our hard-earned vacation days. Weddings and funerals suffice as time enough with long-lost relatives. But there's a growing crew who are reinventing the old notion of a family gala--morphing it into something that more closely resembles a travel tour with plenty of sightseeing and time just to noodle around. "More and more reunions are about going to a destination and combining the gathering of the family with all the fun attractions the area has to offer," says Lawrence Basirico, Ph.D., author of The Family Reunion Survival Guide (Identity Publishing). "The annual reunion, in some families, has become the annual vacation."
Most of today's family reunions are planned with the precision of a corporate off-site, including a mix of family education, leisure activities, tours, free time, door prizes and meals for the masses. Indeed, getting 50, 75 or 100 people together--and meeting their dietary needs--is no easy task. It takes the strategic skills of a general, the tact of a diplomat and the skin of a rhino.
The creativity of organizers like Joan Waters, a self-proclaimed family-oholic, is what makes these events bright, lively and meaningful every time. Waters, 47, who has been organizing the Curtis-Butler reunion at a naval base in southern Maryland every other year since 1985, sees the event as a chance to deepen the family connection and support one another in the larger world, a critical goal particularly among African-American families like hers. Her family get-together can draw as many as 125 participants.
Picking a theme is key for Waters. Her most recent reunion revolved around a family-treasures motif. It included wall-to-wall beach-party decor throughout the weekend--colorful lanterns, beach chairs under umbrellas and a kids' beanbag toss. The highlight of the event is the family-pride awards. The nominees are culled from among family members, and the awards can be given for anything from making the honor roll to graduating from college to baking the best pies. Last year, a cousin who had lost her mother several years earlier nominated matriarch Annie Butler, 86, for a family-pride award, saying "You've been my mother when I had none." Says Waters: "There's never a dry eye in the audience, and I see it as a way of holding up role models in the family."