It's a Family Affair

Edith Wagner
Editor of Reunions Magazine
Wednesday, August 23, 2006; 12:00 PM

Even with skyrocketing gas prices, families are willing to pile into the family car and go the distance to reunite with relatives. With everybody sacrificing time, money and sanity to make these roadtrips, you want to make sure your family reunion is a success. Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions Magazine, was online Wednesday, August 23 at noon ET to take your questions about how to make your family reunion a joyous and memorable occasion.

Reunions Magazine is a helpful when planning almost any kind of reunion, such as class, family and military. It provides information about planning and all the stages involved with a reunion. It also, displays pictures and stories of groups who had successful reunions.

The transcript follows.


Austin, Texas: What are the key dos and don'ts for throwing a successful family reunion? Ours is every Labor Day Sunday and includes a family meeting, a lot of eating, a family Olympics that includes simple events -kicking the ball into the target, throwing a baseball into the family's ancient iron washpot, etc] and a revolving urn and plaque.

Edith Wagner: Sounds like you know your key do's and don't's and are doing them successfully. If you family's happy with the program, don't try to fix what's not broken. If, on the other hand, you're looking for new ideas, that's my business. Peruse for new ideas. Request a free copy of Reunions magazine, or just subscribe for a year and get a free workbook in the deal. Looks like you've got a great reunion going. Send a picture to Reunions Picture Gallery!


Burtonsville, Md.: How can relatives help some poorer relatives be able to come to a planned homecoming? Who will be responsible for the expenses of travel? We have poor relations who are beautiful people and quite proud but needy. How did others solve this problem?

Edith Wagner: Many families make provision for everyone by asking for donations to a fund or family foundation one of whose goals is to make sure everyone can attend the reunion. Generous family members always step up ... but failing that, you must get creative. There are many fun ways to do fundraising before, during and after reunions; auctions, rummage/toy/clothing/bake sales, contests, selling family t-shirts, caps, coffee mugs, family history books ... you get the idea. Ask family members who are able to contribute the cost of something. Most people say they don't volunteer to do things or contribute because nobody asked. And in families, you must ask.

All families have members who are young and never have enough and older members who are on fixed incomes. Often, the family members whom you think can least afford it, your beautiful, proud relations, may surprise you and make the family reunion a priority they can afford.


Vienna, Va.: Relatives in Oregon and I are assembling a reunion for 150+ people in July 2007. Past reunions have consisted of people sitting around staring at one another, whispering over coffee, with no program, no idea who anyone is, and with nobody as "leader" or Master of Ceremonies. We've sent out a preliminary survey to drum up interest (44 percent return). The interest received has been a shade over tepid. How do you suggest we "market" this as a "different" and exciting reunion so that we can draw out family and connect in a way that will last until at least the next reunion?

Edith Wagner: You know what you're doing: so make it fun, market your reunion as the fun event you intend to make it.

A 44 percent response is terrific! At least you have lots of attention so it's up to you to jump in and get more.

Almost half of all reunions in Reunions magazine surveys happen every year (too much changes in some families to miss) so they must be doing something fun or at least worthwhile.

You describe the before and after: before reading Reunions magazine and after. To see a copy free, go to and click on free trial issue. While you're at the site, you might have more questions answered too. You are hereby the leader and will have a very successful reunion because you will it so!


Fort Washington, Md.: How do you get teens and college students to participate? How do you get them to connect to each other at an event that is twice a year?

Edith Wagner: These are pretty universal concerns among many family reunions. And yet it's the simplest possible answer, believe me. Ask them what they want to do and let them do it. Going to the mall may not be your idea of fun but a bunch of cousins who don't see one another often, it could be a hoot. Let kids decide and you'll have happy kids. Connecting, the same way: an e-mail newsletter or round robin e-mail so everyone learns what everyone else is doing. They can't say they don't know their cousins if they are in touch. And get those with similar interests together. Ask what they're interested in: send out the list and they'll soon know who to connect with.


Kensington, Md.: My family is located all over the country and we have talked about a cruise, a beach or lake house to gather us together. When we posed the question to my 87 year old feisty Mom, she said "I want to go on a cruise. No one has to cook or clean. Just pack your bags and have fun, fun, fun."

That sounds great to five of the six family units but one family thinks it is going to be too expensive.

The cruise solution is perfect for us because we have never done a family vacation and this sounds like the most convenient but at the same time, we'd like everyone to be there.

Got any suggestions?

Edith Wagner: There's an earlier answer in this discussion about some ways to assure that everyone can go on the cruise. But in your case, how about dividing the cost of the cruise and adding it to each of the five who can afford it? Or, some of the cost so the sixth family can pay less and afford the cruise. Your feisty mom is right: no one has to cook or clean and all the other details are taken care of too. It's why families go to all inclusive ranches or resorts as well.


Southern Md.: I organized two reunions for my dad's family a couple years ago. Out of 10 siblings, eight survive. With spouses, children and grandchildren, the attendance could have reached 65. I rented a pavilion at a state park, had invitations printed and mailed, and only asked a minimal fee ($3 each) to cover rental of the pavilion. People brought their own lunch but I bought hamburgers, hot dogs, rolls, and condiments. Attendance that year was only 35. A few replied outright 'I am not interested in any family reunion.'

The second picnic I had it catered, thinking older people didn't want to haul food any great distance. Only about 2/3 of those who said they'd come showed up. At least half a dozen didn't eat when they got there (heartburn, 'we already ate,' irritable bowel syndrome) so I ended up paying out of pocket for a lot of meals myself.

To top it off, the group photo looked like a bunch of strangers waiting at a bus stop. We are a dysfunctional family (aren't they all?) and I'm not going to put myself out to organize another reunion. A couple people said they had a good time, but I'm not about a host another Mexican stand-off. Are any other families like this?

Edith Wagner: You have definitely given your dad's family every chance. But what about those who said they had fun? Wouldn't you like to continue that contact? Let everyone know you're doing it (so it is truly a family affair), and continue the fun. But absolutely never, ever again, do it alone: involve all those who had a good time to continue the good times. See how long it takes before somebody gets curious. Anyway, you're a great story teller: save this one for your family or send it to Reunions magazine: how would you fix this reunion?


Pittsburgh, Pa.: I am so excited to finally see this topic as a chat!!

Is there ever a point in time to end family reunions? As a 30-something couple with a child, my husband and I keep attending family reunions, in state and out, in part because we know it's important to our parents. However, our parents, already in their 70s, are among the youngest of the crew who keep coordinating every year, while younger, local cousins, even siblings of ours, don't even attend. While we seldom walk away wishing we hadn't gone, we're getting worn out by juggling logistics, finances, travel and limited vacation time to attend when so few others do. Any thoughts about ending these events, or proposing alternatives to the must-do-this-reunion crowd???

Edith Wagner: Of course, as editor of a magazine about reunions, you didn't think I was going to address stopping the reunion, did you?

The most important point you make is that you seldom walk away wishing we hadn't gone. Perhaps you have to impress upon those who don't come that it's worth it and why.

Perhaps too, it's time for you to consider taking over ... in increments so your parents' generation is still in charge but what you do at the reunion starts leaning more toward what will attract your cousins who are not coming. Find out what they love doing and enlist their help to make it happen at the reunion. And be sure to remind them for their children to know their cousins they'll have to come to the reunion. It's the ones who don't come who are missing out.

From personal experience I can tell you that there will be the time when your parents are not there for you to enjoy so if for no other reason, you should be there for them snd so they can show off their grandchildren.

I sure hope you commit to the future of your reunion for your child(ren). There's lots of help from Reunions magazine ... get free copy at


Arlington, Va.: My question has more to do with how to help people deal with NOT having a family reunion... My husband's family is very large. They are also of the tradition that every milestone must be celebrated with an all-encompassing, elaborate party (communions, confirmations, graduations, engagements, etc. Not to mention the weddings).

The kicker is that some relatives aren't speaking to others because of X, Y, or Z. I"ve been around long enough to know that none of these ridiculous arguments will ever be resolved, but how do you help others in the family deal with the fact that beloved cousin A didn't bother coming (or RSVPing) to their kid's communion party when I know it was because A loathes B (who planned to be there). It's so sad to me. I try to stay out of it (which usually means I'm subjected to hearing all about the family melodrama and relative-bashing from the respective participants in the feuds).

Being that it's not my place to intervene, is there anything I can go to help the naive relatives move on and not expect too much?

Edith Wagner: Sometimes you have to pick your battles and this sounds like one of those. My best friend is from a huge family and feels they can't have a reunion unless everyone can come. So, of course, they assemble for funerals: which is where many reunions start, when someone suggests they meet under happier circumstances.

One important rule for family reunions is that you must invite everyone. Let the invitees chose whether or not to come. Once there, you may have to be a referee ... or not, because more often than not they won't come anyway.

You clearly do not thrive on the family drama and I'm always sorry that anyone has to go through that. Your goal to reduce the drama and animosity is commendable and I salute you for seeing it all. Never forget that truth is stranger than fiction and you tell you


Annandale, Va.: I am getting married next summer. It will be the first time our families meet each other, and we want the emphasis of the event to be on family-- both our individual families and the new joint family we are creating. Our event is fairly casual and will last most of a weekend. Do you have any suggestions on ways to make this reunion/union special for everyone?

Edith Wagner: Why not start emphasis the family right now and have a newsletter that introduces everyone. Start creating the new family so everyone is looking forward to the wedding because they're more comfortable already knowing something about everyone. Or set up a family Web site or blog. And if your great grandma is not computer saving, print a special color copy of the newsletter for her too. Your wedding is making the weekend special but if you want to personalize activities, make sure (most) everyone can do what they most want to do; sit around and talk, play golf, go shopping, learn about each family's history, do a "family tree" of the new family your forming.


Philadelphia, Pa.: It's heartbreaking; I'm trying to persuade my family to organize a reunion. We used to have them when I was a kid but I'm having a hard time convincing my older cousins to work with me, and the younger ones to attend and bring their children. Any tips?

Edith Wagner: You're not alone. Many have the same dilemma. I'd suggest having a reunion with the family members who are willing and when you all have a great time, the word will circulate quickly. That's for starters so you have to build on a great first party.

Or how about starting with a milestone event like a 50th wedding anniversary or Aunt Susie's 80th birthday. Then, they all have to come, don't they?


Washington, D.C.: It has been difficult to gather our family members for a reunion. Although we're mostly local to the area, it doesn't seem to be a priority until there's a funeral.

Edith Wagner: So make a point of telling everyone you want to meet under happier circumstances than funerals.

If you have a milestone event coming up make a reunion out of it and what often happens is that everyone says they had so much fun that they want to do it again.

Celebrate the living!


Arlington, Va.: Hi. Our family has reunions often in areas, such as the beach or Colorado ski resorts, with big houses that we can all stay together. But we'd like to have them all come out to Washington to see this city. Are there alternatives to hotel rooms here or in most cities that would allow us to keep that homey feel to the reunion? Thanks.

Edith Wagner: Have you contacted the DC Convention and Visitors Bureau or the one in Arlington? Pick one and contact them for help finding the exact accommodation you're looking for.

You might also want to explore, Reunion Resources for places to have reunions.

Don't forget to show all your out of town relatives all that Washington has to offer (the CVB can help with that too).


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Yesterday a distant relative (great-great-great-grandfather in common) found me through my family story Web site, I invited her to our family reunion in September and she's bringing her whole branch of the family. Can you suggest something special to welcome a large, merging group of relatives?

Edith Wagner: What a GREAT reunion you'll have.

Of course, your great-great-great-grandfather will have to be focal to anything you do. Do you have pictures? If you have a picture of him from head to toe, I know someone who makes full size cutouts to take ancestors to your reunion. Email me at and I'll find the info ... tho I suspect you may not have time this year.

If you've never used name tags at your reunion, this is a good time to start. Make them in different colors for the different branches.

You'll want to have a family tree or chart showing how you and the new members are related.

And be sure to take a picture of this reunion and send to to be posted at Reunions Picture Gallery at


Herndon, Va.: We have invited my husband's family to visit for a long weekend in September. It could be 15-18 people. Can you suggest activities in the DC area that would be good for ages 2 months to 90 yrs?

Edith Wagner: This might also be a call to the Convention and Visitors Bureau because they are the central place for what's happening. There are also current events in The Washington Post for all ages.

If it were me, I'm eager to try the new Segway tours to see some of the sites.


Reston, Va.: Since some people traveling from out of town do not have access to kitchens for helping with the food at reunions, can you suggest menu items that would please a big group but would be easy to prepare and cheaper than taking a crowd to a restaurant?

Edith Wagner: Have out of towners bring all the paper goods you'll need and drinks, homemade cookies, snacks or go to delis for lots of salads. Places like KFC love to cater reunions and are pretty reasonably priced: then even the in towners don't need to cook!


Southern Md.: two reunions for dad's family : My mom's side of the family has a reunion every two years and the way they raise money to cover fees for food/pavilion rentals etc. is by having a silent auction. Most people bring family heirlooms - old photos, old jewelry, and some just outright bring something funky or cool to auction off. Some items for for $3 others for $30...but in the end it all goes to pay for everything we enjoyed eating and drinking during the day. Not to mention that the auction gets people talking and reminiscing about old so-and-so in that photo someone found in their attic.

Edith Wagner: These are super ideas and it looks like the fundraising activities are as much fun as everything else you do.

Some families make quilts (with pictures from ancestors on or everyone make a square and they get sewn by a family member).

Some families collect recipes and make a recipe book of family heirloom recipes.

I am daily amazed at how some families raise the money for their reunions tho the most common way is for the leader and/or treasurer projecting what it will cost and dividing equally and everyone pays for their own rooms.


Amesbury, Mass.: How important do you think it is to have a Web site for your family?

Edith Wagner: If there's a family member willing and able to develop and moderate a site, it's the wave of the future. It's how many families stay in touch, disseminate reunion info and after post all their pictures. It's great for members who have access but there are still some who don't.

If your grandma doesn't have access and goes to the library regularly, convince her the librarian will be happy to get her onto your site: it should be fun for her to see but you may have to find some other way to stay in touch with those who don't have access.

A family web site is a great way for some member to really show of their skills. Go for it!


Monroe, Mich.: My family is planning an event over the Labor Day weekend. The problem is that my cousin's girlfriend is a drug dealer. He insists on bringing her around the family and into our homes despite everyone's objection to her presence. He asserts that we are being judgmental and they come as a package and we either accept her or he will not come around the family. How else can we explain that although she is his girlfriend, we do not want this type of person in our homes and around the family?

Edith Wagner: How is this handled in regular family gatherings?

Maybe it's just as well sometimes that some cousins not come to the reunion if their only reason for being there is to create controversy. On the other hand, if they're not and the girlfriend is not plying her trade at the reunion, what's the problem?

Is this an issue because you know it or does the whole family know about it? If they don't, I'm not sure this is the kind of info you should be sharing. Since she's a girlfriend and not a spouse, you should have some hope.


Hampton, Va.: Editor Edith, EE--

I'm told your high school class, 1956 Wauwatosa High in WI, is going to have it's 50-year reunion this coming weekend. What are your feelings and expectations for this big event as a participant rather than an observer or chronicler?

Edith Wagner: Hate it when those secrets get out! I am going to my high school reunion this weekend and have yet to find time for that pre class reunion ritual of looking at yearbooks to try to remember some of these folks. I will be going with a purpose to take pictures for a couple of classmates who are not coming: also adds to my collection of stock photos!

Thanks for asking, Hampton VA! I have to get back to family reunions now.


Edith Wagner: Reunions magazine is a reader driven publication where reunions tell their stories and you get ideas how to plan your reunion. We also publish a workbook which is an extensive/exhaustive list of all the possibilities for all reunions. Our web site, has hundreds of pages of info about reunion planning and is a great place for asking just these kinds of questions with reunion organizers answering and discussing their dilemmas. The moderators, Amber and Prince, are enthusiastic forum participants as well as moderators. Both help plan their family reunions. There's lot of help out there for reunion organizers and these are just some of the places to find resources.


Minneapolis, Minn.: Fundraising helps but for those organizers who don't want to pay for the reunion upfront, how do you recommend getting people to register early so that there are funds to work with in the planning stages?

Edith Wagner: Someone does have to pay for some deposits upfront and sometimes it takes a leap of faith to do it. Ask for help every communication and those able to will get the idea. As for getting people to register: it's a universal concern.

Offer some kinds of incentive. You can do the "first to register gets a prize" only once because every family has the aunt or uncle who is always first. How about the first 10 or a drawing from all the registrations by a certain date. Make a big deal about it at the reunion too so some remember next year to pay on time.

Also, don't do it alone: ask for all kinds of help (delegate to those with particular talents but then recognize them in your mailings and at the reunion: they'll be there next reunion too.


Olympia, Wash.: We have a large family - my mother was one of eight siblings, all of whom had several children, grandchildren and now, great-grandchildren. Several of the cousins do not speak. We want to have a family reunion in a location that will be accessible to all, but the non-speakers say they won't attend if other non-speakers are there. It gets politically tricky, as most of us talk to everyone. We really want everyone to attend and have a great time reconnecting. Any suggestions?

Edith Wagner: Sometimes you have to accept that there will be non talkers and, I say, move ahead without them. Of course, in the best of all possible worlds you'd love everyone to be there but in large families it rarely works out.

Maybe the non talkers should be given designations like group A and group B and you consciously have A one time and B the next. That way all the cousins will get to know them.

I do not think you should forgo a reunion because some are cranky!


RE: Drug Dealer Girlfriend: She may not be selling her wares at the reunion, but everyone seems to know her occupation. No one has to be accepting of this girl or her lifestyle. The offer to accept them as a package deal or not at all should have been met with "I guess you're not coming."

Edith Wagner: great answer.



Washington, D.C.: A comment: I can't say enough how visitors and convention bureaus help reunion planners. I just did one in Myrtle Beach, SC and the CVB helped me find caterers, meeting halls and private dining rooms that I wouldn't have had time to look for on my own.

Edith Wagner: That's true for CVBs nationwide: use them for help planning reunions. Some do reunion workshops (Atlanta, Dekalb and Gwinnett Counties in Georgia, Flint, Michigan) and some sponsor the National Family Reunion Conference (everyone should go to that!!!). Details about all of those at


New London, Wis.: Where in Wisconsin would be your choice for a family reunion of appx 50+ people (not the Dells) but would entertain young adults as well as the older ones, some golf, fish and enjoy nature?

Edith Wagner: There are lots of family resorts throughout Wisconsin and the upper Midwest that can are often taken over by a reunion. Golf, fish and nature are everywhere. My personal favorite at the moment is the Three Lakes, Eagle River area.


South Carolina: Do you have any advice for how to deal with information in genealogies such as "Revisionist history" where marriage dates were changed (in this particular case by years) to make the births of the children seem less controversial?

Edith Wagner: I'm sure genealogists have advice about but I'm not a genealogist. I think some put both dates in because the revisionist one is a fact as is the real time date.


Family Woes: Edith,

My mother seems far more interested in distant relatives than her own children. This has become more of a problem since her own mother passed away. My mom and dad spent HOURS preparing for a family reunion they organized for a very distant relatives family (not even my moms direct relative). Yet, when I married my mother barely helped at all even though my parents paid 100% for my wedding. Why are people like this?

Edith Wagner: Sounds like I'm not the first person you've asked and I suspect my answer is like others: who knows?

Have you asked? Do your parents have an answer?


Washington, D.C.: I just hosted a cousin from abroad. It went terribly, she met many people from our family, but I found the connection part to be elusive. Do you have any advice for reunions that include people whom have never met and foreign nationals -- we were basically strangers.

Edith Wagner: I'm really sorry to learn it didn't go well because my experience has been just the opposite with cousins from abroad.

First, learn all you can ahead of meeting someone new and in families there a many ways to do that primarily by talking to other family members. It's also good to know what the stranger likes to do because if you arrange it, it will make everyone happy. For example, you don't play golf but your guest loves it. Make arrangements for a golf game maybe even ask a golf loving friend to go along.

You might be surprised that there is a connection, it's just not as obvious or evident just yet. Did you learn from the cousin as well?

It's like meeting any strangers, everyone must take some responsibility for making it work.


Ashburn, Va.: We're just starting to plan a reunion and I've got lots of questions, for starters - where do I begin? Can you recommend reading material or Web sites? Where I can get more information?

Edith Wagner: Look at Reunions magazine to find out what others are doing: in reunions as in other things, copying is the sincerest form of flattery ... tho reunions featured in the magazine can only hope you'll find their experience worthwhile. You can get a free copy of the magazine at which is a great place too to get lots of questions answers. Not all at once, please, or you might get overwhelmed and decide you can't do it. Reunions Workbook (which is free with subscriptions but can be bought separately) has a timetable to start and lots of lists that will keep you on track.

Ask the same question at where people just like you are and as you go along it's a great place to go back to and read what others have done and ask if you can't find the answer.

You will also want to contact the convention and visitors bureau where you plan to have your reunion: there's lots they can help you with.

Good luck: planning family reunion is one of the greatest gifts you'll ever give you family.


Edith Wagner: Enjoyed this chat and invite you to visit, chat with other reunion organizers at and read and contribute your reunion triumphs to Reunions magazine.

If you have other questions, you can email me at

Many happy reunions,

Edith Wagner


Reunions magazine


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