Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 1, 2004

The Ritchie reunion

Art recently attended the 104th reunion of the Ritchie family in Royalton, Wisc. - a village about the size of Keats. Four years ago, the two of us made the 12-hour trip to attend the 100th annual get-together. The Ritchies aren't my relatives and they're only tangentially related to my husband, so what prompted us to attend?

The quick answer is that neither of us knows of any other family that has hosted that many consecutive reunions - almost always on the same weekend and in the same location.

The longer answer is that we're both addicted to family history and there is something about the work that makes history come alive. Sometimes when I'm scanning old newspaper clippings, reading letters, looking at photos or walking through cemeteries, it's as if the people writing or pictured or buried are watching over my shoulder - or are walking along with me. It can be very disconcerting or very comforting, depending on my mood at the time.

Trips to cemeteries can be especially emotional, particularly when we see tombstones for children. At a cemetery in Illinois, a stone was inscribed with a verse from Robert Munsch's "Love You Forever" book:

"I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always, as long as I'm living, my baby you'll be."

A young couple - I presumed they were the parents of the child buried there - were planting a seedling on the grave. The woman was pregnant. I had to choke back my tears because the verse is one that I recite with my daughters every night before bed.

At a cemetery in Wisconsin, a much older stone, also for a baby or young child, was inscribed with an old-fashioned verse. I gently pulled back the grass at the base of the stone so I could read the worn words:

"A precious one from us has gone, A voice we love is stilled. A place is vacant in our home, which never can be filled. God in his wisdom has recalled, The boon his love had given. And though the body slumbers here, The soul is safe in heaven."

In many cemeteries, tombstone slabs are leaning, broken, even turned completely around. In some cases, they have been moved by the shifting of the earth. Some have been chipped or broken apart by vandals. The sight of untended tombstones makes me sad and a little angry.

But Art assures me that what we are doing with our families' histories will long outlive any words inscribed on marble or granite. Piece by piece, the photos, letters, newspaper articles, personal belongings, wills and tombstone inscriptions allow us to make at least small connections with our own lives - connections that link our past with our present and with our children's generation and beyond.

Sometimes Aunt Kay says she thinks Art enjoys being with the dead relatives more than the living ones. But Art sees life and death as a continuum with one main difference being that the living can speak for themselves while the dead have to rely on people afflicted with this strange malady for family history to speak for them.

But mainly this family history business is fun - a sort of connect-the-dots game. And sometimes there is other fun too. Art said at the end of the business meeting at the reunion, Jany, a preschool teacher, told about talking with her students on the Friday before. One boy asked what she was going to do that weekend and she replied she was going to a family reunion of a family that had met every year for 104 years.

He frowned a bit and said, "Have you been to them all?"

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