Sagewoman‘s theme “Family Reunion” prompted this piece, the memories from which event still linger. In fact, it may have been the last time the entire extended family of Ben and Renee Kreilkamp were invited to celebrate together. Since then, I note that we have experienced the deaths of both our parents, of sister Mary and my husband Jeff, of my ex-husband and father of my children Patrick (only one month after this reunion, and one day past 9/11); plus, since then many of us have gathered to celebrate a number of new marriages; we have comes to terms with at least two divorces; many more grandchildren and great grandchildren have been born, some of whom I’ve never met and likely never will. It’s become just too difficult to gather us, all of us at once, when, for example, several of my siblings gather their own extended lines yearly, and even those include up to 20 people. Instead, we eight (and now seven) siblings gather, occasionally, with our without spouses.
I feel grateful and amazed to recognize that our family is unusual in that, at least as far as I know, there are no really difficult and long-running undercurrents to undermine our solidarity. And I am reminded, in telling of all these changes since this was written in 2001, of the impermanence of all phenomena, including that of the rise and fall of families and individuals within them.
FAMILY REUNION (2001)
by Ann Kreilkamp
I have always enjoyed high school class reunions, considering them wonderful opportunities to conduct longitudinal studies of people’s lives. We meet every five years; I look for subtle and not so subtle changes in our faces and bodies, seeing in them clues to the unfoldment of our interior lives as we age over time.
Family reunions offer an even more extraordinary learning opportunity. Especially perhaps, in a large family like mine, with parents in their mid-80s, eight siblings, eight spouses, 22 grandchildren, 8 great grandchildren . . .
Not only do we siblings and parents participate in watching each other age, not only do we discover and enjoy the diverse natures and growth processes of fresh new beings as they are born to us and to our own children — the more astute among us also witness the subtle and not so subtle evolution in the dynamics set in motion during our childhood.
We siblings are all conscious or not-so-conscious players in a karmic game in which both the fixed chronological order of our births and the great heaving sea of collective and individual memory intersect continuously with present-day events, lending them an invisible coloration. How clear or cloudy that coloration is, and therefore how much capacity we have to respond in the moment or react to some long-nurtured or imagined or forgotten hurt, depends on how much inner work each of us has done. Those who have gone through the long process of sorting through memory, with the aim of dissolving the sticky residue of resentment and nostalgia, have more freedom of thought and action.
Yet, the job of stripping the self of conditioning is never entirely finished. Family is the original karmic cauldron, the alchemical vessel that shaped us originally and which continues its hold on even those among us who pride themselves in thinking they are finally free.
Take me, for example. We held a family reunion in Sun Valley this month, 35 of us in six condos, on a five-day journey. Daytimes saw us spreading out into various outdoor activities. Nighttimes we gathered, for cocktails and dinner.
Two things happened to me this time which I find particularly noteworthy. One is a shift in my way of being in the family; the other is a shift in my way of seeing the evolving family dynamics.
The first began with a big plan I made prior to our arrival. I emailed everybody, saying I would lead whoever wanted to go on an all-day hike in the nearby Sawtooth mountains, up to a particularly beautiful place, Alice Lake. Many siblings and their children responded, some of whom I knew wouldn’t have the strength or the stamina to make the trip. These I counseled that they do something less strenuous — which hurt their feelings.
It seemed like such a good idea at the time, and was very much in keeping with my eldest child role as “intrepid leader“ to plan such a trip.
Once we got together, at the end of the first evening I announced that we would be doing this trip two days hence. About ten of us were excited to go.
The next day I went walking in the hills around Sun Valley with my own little nuclear family and a few others, and just as we were nearing the top of a hill I stumbled, and felt a sharp pain in my lower right leg. (It turned out that I had “sprung” the tendon attached to my knee.) Though I caught myself before I fell, the sharpness of the pain told me that this was something I had to take seriously. I was amazed that I had stumbled, as my sure-footedness is legendary, and in decades of mountain trail hiking, I have only once before hurt myself, and that was going downhill with a heavy pack on my back.
That afternoon I sat on the couch with an iced and elevated leg, immensely interested in the fact that I had stumbled and hurt myself. Wondering why. Hoping I wouldn’t have to cancel the next day’s outing to Alice Lake.
That evening, at the party, I noticed that I didn’t have the energy to interact with my family the way I usually did, that not only was my leg crippling my walk, but my entire physical and emotional system felt weakened. Since I was not radiating energy, I was more vulnerable to energy coming in, and my perceptions of my family altered as well.
(Needless to say, by the end of the evening, I announced that the trip to Alice Lake was off, to no one’s surprise; they had been waiting for me to accept what they already knew.)
My love of walking is inherited from my parents who still walk a mile a day. For me, unless I walk, preferably uphill, or do something else aerobic, every day, I become frustrated and angry. I am blessed with such abundant energy, that I must always work off some of it to be able to sit at the computer. In fact, my whole family has inherited high energy.
Which brings me to the second discovery I made this year.
For when we get together this immense vitality is both wondrous and at the root of a great difficulty. For how do you cram 35 squirming people into even a large condo’s living room? And where else, except a restaurant, can you eat together in a strange place? (I would like us to meet in a campground, where there is more room, but not many like to rough it.)
For three of our four evening events I was in an altered (weakened) state, reduced to the role of observer. And I began to pay close attention to the two primary ways in which we deal with all the energy at these once-every-few-years gatherings.
First, we drink a lot. I have always noticed this, and judged it; not until this year did I see that drinking is in response to a particular need. For drinking is something not many of us do that much of otherwise. Now I sense that we drink when we gather to help us flow together, since we are all so different, so glad to see each other, and so pent up with years’ worth of catching up with our varied lives. But, since there are so many of us together in one room for our evening events — and since we are drinking! — it gets noisy, and it’s almost impossible to hold a real conversation. So some of us leave our parties vaguely disappointed and frustrated.
And secondly, we sing a lot. Twenty-five years ago, we siblings began a tradition on Christmas vacations, to create a cantata to sing for the folks on Christmas eve. (The goal was to make them laugh and make them cry.) We did this for a number of years, and each time it was quite a production, with lots of planning and rehearsals. Each of us would create our own song, telling about our life, and together we would create another song to sing as a chorus for the entire saga. Most of us are musical, playing instruments like piano, guitar, flute, drums, horn. And though we have always sung a lot, these cantatas became a family tradition, eagerly looked forward to, and glued us together with happy memories. We taped them, of course, so we could listen and laugh again later to the old ones.
This year we seemed to have started a new tradition, to rival the old cantatas, to which we have already given a name, “the legend.” It started when my niece Megan brought her African drum, plus two other drums which she taught, on the spot, two younger nieces to play. They started drumming, and my brother John then went into a wonderful riff about Dad and Mom, making them figures of legend, calling Dad a “faith healer” who knew that Mom (“Lady Renee”) was the source of all his healing. (In real life Dad was a physician who, when he retired, became a deacon in the Catholic Church). Then John pointed to me, expecting me to continue the saga. I gulped, rose to my feet and carried on (somewhat lamely), and when done pointed to another family member, and so on. This “legend” went on for perhaps 45 minutes, and in this way, many people got to tell something of their own story publically to the beat of the drums.
So in that way, the tremendous energy of my family was harnessed. At least for that 45 minutes. Other “performances” came on different nights: my nephew Andrew’s Bob Dylan imitations on guitar; my sister Paula’s presentation of a song she had performed as the lead singer in the musical “Nunsense,” dressed in a nun’s habit; her daughter Rachel’s ballet dance; the two youngest great grandchildren (one of them my first and only grandchild) 13 and 14 months old respectively, rocking to the beat of the music, kissing, teaching each other to push chairs across the room.
These performances organize the mass of individual energies, give them a structure to flow through. At other times however, I, and I am sure others, especially the more introspective among us, experience the family energy as chaotic, cacophonic. Difficult to exist within.
So, it seems to me, what is needed here is more traditions to organize our energies, and to help individuals express themselves so that all gathered may appreciate them. Just partying for four evenings in a row doesn’t cut it. It never did. Yet it is only now, when I am 58 years old, that I can view with compassion our struggle to contain and express this family vitality. I see how the chaos that constantly threatens to overwhelm us is, at least at times, being channeled into creativity. For that, I am grateful and glad.
And I am grateful for my accident too, which literally brought me to my knees. Had I not been stopped in my tracks, I would have not come to this place of compassion. It is time to give up my prime-of-life role; time to sit back and enjoy the flowering around me. From now on I join in, not as leader, but as elder.