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OPINION | Give us back our families

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HAGÅTÑA— Do you have to be as ancient as me to warm to those memories of the old family gatherings?

The Christmas dinners with grandparents and aunts and uncles? The unexpected visits from relatives, who would bring treats for us kids and entertain us with jokes and stories?

At some time in the deep past, most of the big family might have lived together on a single farm, but that’s not the way it was in Buffalo when I was growing up. We might not have lived under the same roof with the larger family, but we regularly spent time with our relatives. They looked after us as families were supposed to. That’s what families did, after all.

But that was before the world began to fragment so wildly. Half of our graduating high school class in 1956 moved out of town and now lives hundreds of miles away from their families, the relatives they would have had regular contact with way back then. Then again I sometimes hear that even those who stayed in town after graduation just don’t visit their cousins the way they once used to. Many of the people I knew were aware of what we had lost, but most shrugged it off as something that happens when times change.

Then, on my periodic trips back to the U.S. mainland during the 1990s, I began noticing the signs in motels welcoming the “Ryan” family or the “McGuire” family or whatever family they happened to be hosting at the time. These families, determined to overcome the distance separating their members, were renting hotel rooms so they could gather for the weekend. It was a family reunion — the kind of thing that happened several times a year when I was growing up. I saw it as an effort to retrieve something of their extended family.

My own family intentionally made the same effort when they began gathering, 60 or 70 strong, each summer for a planned vacation in the mountains of upstate New York for a week or two. My brothers and their spouses had decided that the broader family was just too important to lose. So they’ve been doing this for nearly 40 years now. It draws relatives from the west coast and even from across the Atlantic at times.

What about here on Guam? Have big family get-togethers declined here as they have in the mainland? Whenever I bring up the question to my friends here, they smile as they recall the good old days with the family celebrations that never seemed to end, but most would admit that they just don’t do as much of that anymore. They might like to get together more with the relatives, but there are so many obstacles these days: jobs, off-island moves, even tensions within the family.

But there is one occasion for a family gathering that cannot be denied: a funeral. Maybe once upon a time, all the relatives might have gathered at the home of the deceased every night during the novena as well as at the funeral. But parking is sometimes hard to find and the typical home can only hold so many people. Perhaps it’s easier to have everyone gather at the church for the rosary and chat for a few minutes afterward. But is this enough to satisfy the island appetite for family togetherness?

“You know how it works,” I often explain. “Every time a wave of social change breaks over us, we seem to lose a little bit more of our family connectedness.” Well, that’s certainly what I thought I saw happening in the U.S. mainland. And it was something that people in Pohnpei and Chuuk would lament as well.

Still, folks are surprisingly adept in dealing with matters like this. In response to the change that was ripping families apart, some Americans have found ways to gather their bigger families from time to time. They may be hoping to reverse the trend in time, or at least keeping their own relatives aware of their ties.

We can treasure those memories of the old family dinners as we sit down in front of the TV to eat our warmed up meal. Or we can work out new strategies for recovering what we seem to have lost.

Father Fran Hezel is a former director of the research-pastoral institute Micronesian Seminar. After serving as Jesuit mission superior in the Micronesian islands for six years, he continued heading the Micronesian Seminar until 2010.

November 2020 pssnewsletter

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