The LaBate family has always been big on family reunions. For over 50 years, our extended family met regularly on the last Sunday in July at Northampton Beach in upstate New York, a relatively short drive for most of us who lived in nearby Amsterdam. My Italian grandparents had raised 11 children, and the reunion was always special. Yes, we often saw one another at smaller gatherings for holidays and birthdays and other special events, but our summer gathering was the annual highlight of my youth. We spent the entire day eating, swimming, and playing intergenerational games of wiffleball, volleyball, bocce, and everyone’s favorite — the egg toss. I was truly blessed to experience this family ritual as a child, and I was doubly blessed when I was able to bring my wife and our two daughters many years later.
Ironically, that gigantic reunion gradually faded away when the original 11 siblings began to age and pass away and when some of their children began to spread out geographically and decided they wanted to have smaller gatherings with their own children and grandchildren. Thus, my siblings and I had a bit of a gap for a while until we and our children decided to resurrect the tradition two summers ago at a different location, one that would be somewhat central for all of us in Westchester County, down near the old Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River. Though the location was different and didn’t include a beach, the gatherings again were special, and we were already planning the 2020 event when the virus and the quarantine put everything on hold.
Confined to our homes and not knowing when we’d be able to gather physically, my youngest sister, Jenny, sent out an email that said, “Why don’t we have an online reunion this week to celebrate Mom’s April 1st birthday?” Both Mom and Dad are gone now, yet the idea of seeing one another’s faces again, at least for a short time, appealed to everyone, and most of us connected electronically for a little over an hour.
If you’ve never attended an online meeting, the technology is amazing. The program we used makes it possible for up to 50 people to call in by phone or connect by computer and see one another on the screen and talk. Personally, I’ve become extremely familiar with this program recently because it’s the same program our college is using as we’ve made the full transition to online learning.
Jenny set up the meeting, and her image filled one half of the screen alongside the image of Barbara and me when we were the first to arrive. We shared small talk for a minute or so until the others gradually appeared, and the program added images of the others until we looked like the Brady Bunch or the celebrities on Hollywood Squares. We eventually filled almost a dozen small rectangles, and like any family gathering, the experience was both wonderful and overwhelming.
I looked on in amazement and realized my sisters and I and our spouses really are the “old folks” now, but it was so good to see our children interacting with their cousins and overseeing their little ones. Since we don’t often see these members of that third generation, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing their young, animated faces and their childish antics as we all experienced for the first time this crazy new way of coming together.
The conversation was crazy too. At times, no one knew what to say or whose turn it was to speak. At other times, we were all speaking at once, and no one could hear or understand anything. At times, too, the technology faltered or failed, but even that failure was funny. When one person suggested that “the WiFi connection might be unsteady,” my niece Kyla immediately added that “we might all be a bit unsteady.” You are so right, Kyla.
During the actual conversation, some ate their dinner as we remembered Mom and Dad, we recalled April-Fools-Day pranks we played on Mom, we exchanged Netflix recommendations, and we even heard a few knock-knock jokes. The smiles and laughter were both genuine and uplifting, a welcome addition to the canned laughter we hear on television and a true antidote to the forced isolation that could easily lead us to feel frightened and alone.
As I reflected on our gathering later that evening, I realized that it can’t, of course, replace a real reunion, and I definitely wanted more one-on-one time with everyone, the sort of time we get when we’re unloading coolers or cooking hamburgers or eating dessert side-by-side at a picnic table. But for now, this will have to suffice. We’re already planning another online reunion in the near future, and if you and your family haven’t tried it yet, I definitely recommend the experience as it may help steady your family through these unsteady times.