DETROIT (July 14 and 15, 2017)—A smoky sizzle permeated the air as my cousin, Dana, manned the barbecue grill. She flipped burgers, hot dogs, and kabobs for hours at Belle Isle Park as descendants of the Jones and Jordan families gathered along the Detroit River under the shade of Pavilion No. 9. They had traveled from near and far to attend a family reunion, an occasion greeted by a bright summer sky.
I was one of the long-distance travelers. I drove four and a half hours—306 miles—from Chicago with my two-year-old daughter in tow, arriving at the Comfort Suites in Southfield, Mich. just after midnight Friday. My connection to the gathering was my paternal grandmother Mamie Jones, born in Atchison, Kansas in 1910 to Enoch Jones and Luella Jordan.
Mamie was the 7th child of 14 siblings and later married Edward Briggs Sr., my grandfather, a cab driver and quarry worker who had a penchant for fedoras and thick cigars. My father, Edward Briggs, was born of that union. Mamie later married James William Powell, a 9th and 10th Calvary Buffalo Soldier, and became Mrs. Mamie Lue Powell, the family matriarch.
In 2006, I had the bittersweet pleasure of meeting Mamie for the first time at a nursing home; in 2007, I had the honor of serving as a pallbearer at her funeral. She was 96.
This was my first Jones & Jordan Family Reunion and I probably would have missed it had it not been for my cousin, Lynn, and my aunt, Linda, who inboxed me on Facebook with details. (Thank you, Mark Zuckerberg, for inventing something useful). I saw them both sitting beneath the shingled roof of the pavilion when I arrived Friday afternoon at the family picnic, a gathering of toddlers and elders, brothers and sisters, cousins and first cousins, aunts, and uncles, faces I’d seen before and others I was meeting for the first time.
I didn’t grow up with the ritual of attending family reunions, so the nostalgia and fondness of such occasions used to be lost on me.
That was until 2006 when, in my 30s, I connected with my dad’s family. They invited me to their family reunions and I quickly learned these occasions served as touch points of connectedness and history. Nearly all of my relatives seem to have a memory (for better or worse) tied to a family reunion.
Taking in the view of the Jones-Jordan clan under the pavilion felt like a verse from Jill Scott’s “Family Reunion” come to life:
We at the family reunion
Tellin’ jokes and playin‘ spades
Uncle Dave is on the barbecue grill
Grandma braggin’ bout the blanket she made
For the new baby on her way
Even though the daddy ain’t really ready
This child is coming anyway yeah
Niecy made her famous potato salad
Somehow it turns out green
Maybe it’s all the scallions
Could be the celery
But oh Uncle Jerome loves it
The next evening, the Jones and Jordan families gathered again. This time it was for a family dinner at the local Knights of Columbus banquet hall. A deejay spun tunes. A professional photographer took family portraits. Prizes were given to the oldest and youngest relatives in attendance and to those who had traveled the furthest (Atlanta) and helped the most with the reunion (my cousin Dana for her dedication to grilling duty the day before).
The photo placemat from the 2017 Jones & Jordan Family Reunion dinner.
But the kicker for me was the dinner itself. Not the food, but the symbolism.
Placemats at each table featured a collage of fifteen family photos from reunions past. When I looked down, I saw Mamie Powell, the family matriarch, staring back at me from a picture just below the reunion logo, wearing her pearls. When I looked up, I saw the eldest members of the Jones and Jordan clan seated together—in a row of honor—facing the banquet hall, their tables draped in white linen. From our vantage point, it seemed we were staring at the Past; from theirs, the Future.
To me, this is the true inheritance of a family reunion: a sense of legacy.
Originally published on Fatherhood at Forty
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