My cousin, Lucille Wiggins, had warned on more than one occasion that she was getting up in years and would not be able to carry the responsibility of organizing our family reunion forever.
But it wasn't until I found myself in her room in the rehab center where she was recovering from hip surgery that it really sank in. Sitting in a wheelchair, Lucille looked frail. Her bluejean jacket hung loosely from her shoulders, and she looked thinner than when I last saw her.
Earlier, she had undergone open-heart surgery and bounced back to marshal the planning effort. But heading into the final stretch for this weekend's reunion, I realized how much work had yet to be done. How would she weather the demands of pulling off this event? And equally troubling, what would happen after this one?
For nearly a quarter-century, the descendants of my great-grandparents, Tim and Easter Benton, have gotten together every three years to pay tribute to our past and celebrate the family today. About 250 of us converge on the tidewater city of Portsmouth, Va., for a three-day gathering that ends with a Sunday service in Corapeake, N.C., at the church where Tim and Easter once worshiped and are now buried.
In between, we catch up with relatives we haven't seen for a while. We take over the conference room of the Holiday Inn, where we set up a mini-museum with such memorabilia as tools, quilts and dolls from our family. We gather for a banquet and we board a small ship for a breakfast cruise. Over the years, we have been treated to surprise events such as my sister's marriage at the reunion 15 years ago, as well as the much-anticipated perennial fashion and talent shows, which feature young and old.
Three years ago, Lucille had asked me if I would take over as chief organizer of the reunion. I said no -- twice -- but said I would be willing to co-chair the planning committee, which met monthly at her home.
I could tell, though, that Lucille, at 76, was getting tired. And that she was disappointed that no one had stepped forward to take her place.
Finally, at a recent meeting, she put her cards on the table: "I don't want to drop it like a hot potato. We came in style. We're going out in style." But, she added emphatically, "This is my last year serving as chairperson."
My earlier responses to her request to take over the reunion were not sitting well with me. This is my family history that she has nurtured and preserved for future generations. How could I possibly not do this? I left that meeting with a list of things to do, and a nagging feeling that would be harder to dispense with.
My family reunion has evolved into an $18,000 operation that involves contracts and negotiations and site visits and meetings. It calls on dozens of people to fill 20 committees, among them: finance, audiovisual and displays, family directory, hospitality, music, North Carolina trip, and cooking Benton-style. There is a family newsletter, a who's who guide and family directory, a calendar, souvenir book, letterhead stationery, pens, mugs, cups and T-shirts. We have a family emblem, a motto, colors and flower.
We reserve an entire ship for a Saturday breakfast cruise and the entire church for our Sunday service. The goal is to try to get as many family members who are scattered around the country to come to Corapeake, N.C., where our great-grandparents, former slaves, married in 1874 and started their family. Corapeake doesn't have an inn or hotel, so we book 50 rooms at the Holiday Inn in Portsmouth, then drive the 40 miles or so to North Carolina for the closing events.
In terms of cost and elaborateness, our reunion fits somewhere in the middle of the thousands of family reunions that take place each year. Of the 328 million trips that Americans plan to take this summer, about 35 percent are for family reunions, according a survey by the Travel Industry Association of America. Like ours, most are taking place this weekend, over the July 4 holiday.
The Benton family reunion is modest compared with others, like the one next week at the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort in Solvang, Calif., where 60 members of the Valentine family have reserved a third of the place at $15,000 a night for four nights. Ours is not as large as those organized by the Harlan Family in America, a nonprofit association that has a Web site and attracts as many as 800 family members to its reunions. It is not as old as the one held by the Washington area Quanders -- one of the oldest black families in the country, which will gather next month for its 80th reunion.
But ours is more involved than the majority of reunions in this country, which is typically a barbecue in a family member's back yard, according to the Travel Industry Association.
Compared with others, our homegrown event may seem old-fashioned because none of it is outsourced to event planners or travel agents. But for that reason it seems to embody what William Falk, chairman of the department of sociology at the University of Maryland, suggests is one of the most important aspects of family reunions: They "celebrate the strength of the family to maintain itself through difficult times."
When I was growing up, we rarely traveled anywhere where we didn't have family. I remember my parents being concerned when I moved to Columbus, Ohio, in 1973 because there were no relatives there. Or in Chicago, where I later moved for a job at the Chicago Tribune. They wanted me to have a family member to call in case of an emergency.
Since 1981, when our first family reunion was held, the network of relatives around the country has grown and with it the family support system. One relative offered to pay the expenses for another, who lost her job, to attend this year's reunion. When my cousin Lucille underwent hip surgery, my three sisters and I drove to Portsmouth to check on her.
This familial closeness -- on my father's mother's side of the family -- is not reflected on the other sides. We don't have family reunions with my father's father's family. My mother's mother's side of the family has tried to get relatives together for an annual barbecue at another relative's home in the Portsmouth area. I have attended once in the past five years. It is a warm occasion, but I don't feel the strong need to attend, as I do with the Benton family reunion.
For 24 years, we have been getting together for this reunion. It has strengthened our ties, led to new and renewed friendships. Most of this is due to Lucille.
Lucille and I share a grandmother, Nettie, who was one of Tim and Easter's 19 children. Lucille's mother, Hattie, and my father, Daniel, were two of Mama Net's 11 children.
Family has always been important to Lucille. Her father was killed in a logging accident when she was a year old. She and her younger brother, who was born a month after her father died, lived with her father's parents for 11 years, while her mother worked in Portsmouth during the week and came home to Corapeake on the weekends to care for them. She also spent time with her mother's parents, who lived nearby.
When Lucille was little, Mama Net would give her scraps of material and teach her how to sew clothes for her doll baby on the treadle machine. Lucille dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. But when she graduated from college in 1950, she needed money before she could think of starting her own business. So she became a substitute teacher in Portsmouth. She discovered she liked working with students and took a job as a home economics teacher. She taught fashion design at I.C. Norcom High School for 20 years before she retired in 1991.
A spare bedroom in her house is full of fabric -- silk, wool, suede in bright red, purple, gold -- all stacked on shelves. Bolts line one wall. Another is covered with fabric from floor to ceiling.
"When I see the fabric, the beauty of it, I can visualize it made up," she says. But there isn't enough time to make all the garments she sees in her mind. Between her reunion organizing and work with other groups, Lucille says she "would make garments for somebody else and put myself last. So, therefore my fabric still stayed there."
Lucille's background in education and fashion is woven into the reunion. After the Saturday night banquet, there is a fashion show, where Lucille and other relatives model outfits they made. Lucille usually models three or four, at least one with a wide-brimmed or otherwise stylish hat.
Preserving the family history for future generations has been the primary goal under Lucille's leadership. She enlists committee members from different generations and with varied interests.
A tall, elegant woman with high cheek bones and a tiny mole under her left eye, Lucille is organized and gentle, but authoritative. She never speaks loudly or raises her voice but is adept at getting others to see things her way.
One day, a cousin and I were going over the menu for the reunion's opening meet-and-greet. We wanted to try something different from the light hors d'oeuvres that Lucille has ordered for past reunions. Lucille listened and said she thought the hors d'oeuvres would be fine. But she left it up to us to decide. The next day, my cousin and I met with the caterer, who told us the change of menu would add another $20 a person to the cost, which would exceed our budget. When we took the catering contract to Lucille, stipulating light hors d'oeuvres, she simply signed it and smiled.
Over the years, our reunion has come to reflect Lucille's gentle insistence that our get-together be more than a "hot dog/hamburger reunion," that it be educational as well.
Over the weekend, my relatives and I will share family stories and show off photos and other family memorabilia. We will play and replay a videotape of my great-uncle Jordan, the only child of Tim and Easter Benton to attend one of our reunions, and watch him talk about our family during a segment on ABC's "Nightline" in 1981. He died in 1982. After the Sunday church service, some of us will go to the cemetery and visit the gravesites of my Uncle Jordan, my great-grandparents and other relatives.
This, more than anything else, is what Lucille wants to see continue.
"I feel good that I have been a part of getting information on family and getting it across so the family members can get to know their background," she says. "They should feel proud of their heritage. It gives you a good feeling just to open the souvenir book and just looking at Tim and Easter Benton, Tim standing back there like he owned the world."
I like my family reunion because it is old-fashioned. I like that we greet each other with hugs and kisses. I like that tears flow freely, sometimes for no apparent reason, other than because we are together. I like that my relatives and I can find strength and comfort in being with each other after and during illnesses and after losing a loved one. At a time when many families are scattered and disintegrating, I am proud of the fact that the Benton family reunion has become such an anticipated tradition.
New generations are becoming active in planning. My niece Melanie, who as a 4-year-old was in my sister's surprise wedding in 1990, has put together the family newsletter for the past two reunions. She is now a rising college sophomore. Her sister, Karal, who got married last summer and is looking forward to introducing her husband, Jason, to the family, took over the reins of financial secretary. I like spending time with Karal on our drives from Washington to Portsmouth for the monthly planning committee meetings.
"Most of my friends are very surprised and in awe, just amazed that this is such a huge, thought-out, well-planned event because most of them have a barbecue at someone's house or may be that kind of thing for their reunion," said Karal, 24. "You could have some relatives who say, 'Oh, the older Benton family relatives have already passed away, so why should I come?' But it's still important because you're still passing on a legacy."
There is a poem that Lucille says she tries to live by, which once hung in her classroom and which she taught to her son, and now to her 5-year-old grandson, Andrew. It is titled "Always Finish," and the author is anonymous:
If a task is once begun,
Never leave it till it's done
Be the labor great or small
Do it well or not at all
Not long ago, I sat with Lucille and listened to her talk about the family reunion. I knew how important it was to her. And I knew what I was going to do.
"You know I'm going to carry it on for you," I said.
"You are?" she said, almost disbelieving. "You're going to carry it on." She began to cry.
"I'm going to carry it on," I said, as she swiped tears from her eyes. "You're going to be around to carry it on, too. You're the chairperson emeritus. Don't worry. We're not going to let it die."
To read about the history of the Benton family, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/07/02/AR2005070201055.html