When I heard there was a family reunion planned for this summer, I knew I had to be there. Back in the mid-1980s, my family and I embarked on this spectacular road trip that took us through several states in the Midwest and the southern United States. With my dad at the wheel, we traveled to see both sides of our family, stopped to see a few sights, and created a narrative that would forever echo in my heart. Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas are the stand out states-there could have been a few more, but this trip is the one that made me fall in love with the road.
On that trip, we went to a family reunion-the only one I can recall attending during my childhood-but those memories, fresh and eager to be remembered, were starting to wane into mythology. Was it really as pleasant as I remembered? There were times when I wasn’t sure those few days we spent in Blytheville, Arkansas, had been as sweet as the memories seemed. Other days, days when I thought, “They couldn’t have been that sweet, because I never saw most of those people again.”
My grandfather, Norman Thigpen, died last year. I was unable to make it to the funeral, and when my mom sent me an obituary in the mail, I couldn’t open it. I didn’t make it to the funeral because I was pregnant, and already planning on making a trip to Michigan for my sister’s wedding, a few months later. Sadly, Lillie Elizabeth would never take a breath.
After the loss of my daughter, I wanted nothing more than to go home. Not the home I share with my husband in North Ogden, Utah. Utah, regardless of how long I live here, will never be home. I was longing for the home that is in the bosom of my family. My parents, niece, sister, and brother-in-law came to Utah for the funeral, and it was refreshing to have them near, but they had to go back to Michigan. After they left, I needed the comfort of a familiar, familial face, and that is when I opened the envelope and took out my grandfather’s obituary.
My grandfather’s obituary was comforting, and I longed for more. I wanted to be surrounded by the laughter and joy I remembered from my childhood. But I was hesitant, and I missed the registration deadline for the family reunion. My husband kept asking for the dates so he could take time off. I hesitated and procrastinated because I didn’t know how it would be to see all those people again-my people. My family. One Saturday morning, I woke up and called my cousin Bud to ask if it was too late for me to pay for the family reunion.
The first thing that struck me about him was that he sounded like my grandfather. He had that slight hint of a southern accent, underlined with a Midwestern cadence. His voice was warm and familiar, even though I could not remember the last time we had any contact. The blood we shared, the warmth of our connection was automatically activated as if it had never been interrupted. We talked for a while, sharing details about our lives, and all of a sudden, I was SO excited for the family reunion. This is your chance, I told myself, to rekindle the family flame. It is all up to you.
When I arrived at the meeting room for the reunion, I found Bud, and he told me that my grandfather had been the glue. That he had been the one to hold the family together.
“I want you to know that we’re all here for you. Uncle Norman really held the family together. We want to know you.”
So, the legendary family reunion back in the 1980s was real. It was as beautiful as I remember it, and the next reunion will be just as sweet. I returned home with the same spirit of hope and love that I had when I made it back to Detroit after the trip to Blytheville. The difference is that I am older now, and it is entirely up to me to keep the bonds secure.
The family reunion we had in the mid-1980s is legendary. I can recall the big street party, the hot, heavy Arkansas air that somehow did not deter me from wearing long sleeve shirts and pants. The invisible strings that tied me to the multitude of people that attended-all my kin-folk. Sometimes, I wonder what it would have been like if we’d nurtured those bonds better. What if we had dived deeper into that connection of blood, shared history, and familial love? What would it have been like?
My life has been excellent. Sure, there are stumbles and falls along the way, but overall, I can’t complain. BUT…What if I had been more heavily aligned with my family? The family reunion reminded me of the one thing that I know for sure when I think of the maternal side of my family-it’s going to be fun. There is always laughter, jokes, and warmth. So when I heard that there was a family reunion, I knew I had to be there. Not just because I wanted to go, but because I needed the love and warmth that only my family could give me.
The book was already planned, and in the final stages, before we went to the family reunion. But the strength to actually publish the book, and feel great about it, came from attending the reunion. As I stood next to successful and joyous cousins, I realized that I wanted to be in that number. I wanted to take my rightful place next to the people who are doing what they love and feeling good about life.
When we returned from our trip, I sat down and wrote out my writing goals. By the time we have the next family reunion, I will be able to stand next to my successful and joyous cousins and tell my happy story of becoming an independent author.
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