By Bill Bradberry
Niagara Gazette — Some things bear repeating, like what I penned almost exactly 10 years ago to the day, and again five years ago on these very pages, “Although you can’t tell by the weather, according to the calendar it’s (almost) summer.”
Time to start thinking about vacations or, as is the custom among some families and friends, it’s time to start thinking about the annual family reunion again; time to “party like its 1999.”
As in years passed, Mother Nature has certainly done her part to pent up our desire to get the heck out of the house if not out of town; to hit the parks, beaches and highways, anyplace where the sun is shining and the temperature has risen high enough to break out the sandals, shorts, swimming suits, hiking boots, fishing poles, Frisbees, horse shoes and barbecue gear — whatever it takes!
This year, just as they did 10 years ago, the annual barrages of cool winds, gray skies, and spring showers have lasted well beyond their welcome; we’re ready to see and feel the warm glow of the sun, are we not?
Ever since, and, I’m sure, generations before I was a tiny bundle of babbling joy, my dad’s side of the family enjoyed getting together every August for at least one week in sweltering Riviera Beach, Fla., where his father’s family settled after they migrated from Georgia in the 1920s.
But after living there until his early teens, my father, like hundreds of thousands of others, had headed north in search of better opportunities than life in the South could offer at that time.
Most African-Americans in the South were still struggling in the post-Civil War, Reconstruction atrocities which had resulted in the strict racially fueled segregationist, “Jim Crow” laws designed to keep things just the way they were, separate and unequal, keeping black people on the bottom rung with little hope of ever climbing any higher.
Rumors, along with real-life accounts by many who made the journey “up north”, spread like wildfire all over the South; that things were different up there was indisputable.
The greatest human migration in this nation’s young history was under way as hundreds of thousands separated from their families and abandoned Dixie to resettle in Yankeevile in search of the American Dream.
Of course, not everybody wanted to leave their “roots” in the Southern soil.
Some had accumulated considerable valuable property, many owned productive farms and businesses — but their trade was often not welcome outside their own all-black communities.
Travel was not easy, separation was difficult for many. Black folks could not safely navigate the highways and were usually banned from public accommodations.
That meant they had to form their own networks of hotels, restaurants and other facilities. It meant they did not get to see their families for years because for most, more frequent travel was almost impossible.
Over time, as the political and legal battles raged, barriers fell, things got better; travel became safer and easier, and the tradition of the annual family reunion was born.
Now, it is one of the strongest traditions, one of the most enduring, having survived against the odds, nearly intact after all these years.
Sometimes initiated by chance encounters at elder’s funerals, distant cousins, aunts and uncles, otherwise rarely seen, or heard from, often agree to meet again at another place, under less stressful circumstances, and the family reunion seed is planted.
The planning begins.
Someone agrees to host, and, ready or not, before you know it, its time …
Hosting the reunion is considered an honor in some families, in others, a curse; in either case, it is a huge responsibility.
What may have started as an informal gathering among a few family members has blossomed into a gigantic industry, spawning all kinds of how-to books filling entire sections in public libraries, bookstores and internet sites.
But most successful family reunions are still, relatively speaking (pun intended), loosely assembled, unprofessionally planned gatherings with little strict structure; that may be what makes so many of them so successful.
Some are as simple as agreeing to meet at the same place, same date and time every year with your own picnic basket; whoever shows up, shows up, whoever doesn’t, doesn’t.
The reunions that I have attended over the past few years, including as a guest at other family’s reunions, all tend to follow the same general patterns, regardless of whether the families are African-American, Polish, Italian or, nowadays, any combination thereof.
Generally, in my experience, when the hosting family is in the South, the essential reunion takes place over a long holiday weekend, but may extend over one or more weeks, and includes a tour of the local cemeteries, old farm houses where great grandparents may have birthed a whole generation of ancestors, a huge fish fry and an all-day barbecue.
Local churches sometimes participate too, putting on special services, even sponsoring breakfasts and offering the blessings of the local pastors.
Typically, there is food, plenty of it, cooked the way we remember it; the way mom did it, or from our favorite local family-owned and operated restaurants; there is music, lots of music; our adolescent soundtracks, the music we, or our parents grew up on, the good stuff we all know (or think we know) the words to, and, of course, there are the memories, the stories, the legends …
Like many of us who have traveled or lived for any extended period of time outside of our hometowns have discovered, there is no place exactly like home, but that, sometimes, for many, “home” may be a good place to be “from,” a nice place to visit, but no longer a great place to live.
Real Niagarans love to party; maybe it’s time to seriously think about and plan one gigantic annual homecoming/reunion for everyone who left Niagara Falls to come back home and get reacquainted with all the good friends and family they left behind.
Why not?Contact Bill Bradberry at firstname.lastname@example.org