It's all in the family during reunion time


Sitting in the middle of Jean Lewis' Columbia living room is a cardboard display with seven generations of the Bivins-Little clan, each listed in a different color on this centerpiece for their family reunion in July.

Lewis' fifth generation on the family tree is in red. She points to the purple generation, the seventh.

"This is the hardest generation to keep up with because there's always new names to add to that list," she said.

Lewis and her relatives are among the estimated tens of millions of families that will attend reunions this year. Ranging from small get-togethers to elaborate affairs with caterers and days of scheduled activities, experts say reunions offer families an opportunity to reconnect with their roots and reinforce their collective identity.

Summer is the season for family reunions, and the Memorial Day weekend opens the ritual. Most will occur between Memorial Day and Labor Day, said Ione Vargus, a professor emeritus and founder of the Family Reunion Institute at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Statistics vary on how many people will attend a family reunion this year. A survey compiled by American Demographics magazine found that 60 percent of Americans attend family reunions annually. Another by the Travel Industry Association of America found that 30 percent of American adults have been to a family reunion within the past three years.

"While the statistics vary depending upon the source, it is very safe to say that upward of tens of millions of Americans attend family reunions annually," said Laurence Basirico, a sociology professor at Elon University in North Carolina who wrote The Family Reunion Survival Guide.

During the research for his book, Basirico found that more than 40 percent of people who attend family reunions go every year. An additional 25 percent attend every two to three years.

Basirico also found in a survey he conducted that most people prefer a gathering that is better planned and less frequent. "Family members are more satisfied when their reunions are structured, organized, well planned, larger, longer lasting and less frequent," he said.

For a successful reunion, preparation is key. Vargas notes that planning for a family reunion should begin about a year to 18 months in advance. Lewis family members used to meet monthly to plan their family reunion. Now, as the time draws near, they meet every two weeks.

The Lewis family is part of the Maryland chapter of the Bivens-Little family reunion. The Bivins-Little family has a reunion every other year, and every sixth year there is a reunion in Columbia, where the fewest number of relatives live.

"I wouldn't want a ritual where we go every year," Jean Lewis said. "Every other year is good. In two years, people are married and children are born."

Each of the six members in the Lewis family in the Columbia area has a role in planning this year's reunion. Jean Lewis is the historian because she does the family research. Her husband, Dr. Roger Lewis, is treasurer because he provides most of the money. Moy West, her sister, is the president. And West's 7-month-old daughter, Imani, even has a role. "She's the cheerleader," Jean Lewis said.

The Bivins-Little family reunions have been held since 1982 and take place on the third weekend in July. This year's reunion will be from July 18-20 in Columbia and Washington. About 75 members are expected to attend, which is fewer than the 150 members who typically attend the reunion in Atlanta and the 160 members who attend the Chicago reunion.

Because only six family members live in the Columbia-Washington area, they ask relatives to pay a registration fee of $25 to help alleviate costs for food. Relatives will take two buses from Chicago and Atlanta to get to the three-day reunion in Columbia.

For the first reunion in Columbia in 1985, the family held a picnic at Merriweather Post Pavilion. In 1991, relatives stayed at Howard Inn, had a picnic and talent show in Columbia, and took a tour of Washington. The family stayed across from Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1997 and went to the Inner Harbor and the Great Blacks in Wax Museum on North Avenue.

This year, members of the Bivins-Little family will start their reunion with a picnic and enjoy the pool at the Lewis home in Columbia. Then they will travel to a Washington hotel for a welcoming reception.

The next morning, they will have a family brunch in the hotel and later a family banquet, when each name on the family tree will be announced. In past years, children squirmed in their seats when they heard the name of someone they knew. When they heard their grandmother's name, they would say, "That's you, Grandma." And the kids would sit a little taller when they heard their own name called.

The family also will tour Washington and visit places such as the Frederick Douglass House, the Anacostia Museum and the future site of the Martin Luther King Jr. Museum.

Lewis also is thinking about other ways to display her family's history. She is considering making a family quilt and having everyone design their own square. As she works on finalizing plans, Lewis is getting excited.

"We just have a really great time together," she said. "It's a way to bring people together in love. You can't know where you are going if you don't know where you come from."

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