Family Reunion: Chebuhar Style

Thursday, August 7, 2014

I come from a loud, proud, lively Croatian heritage.  My  maternal great-grandparents immigrated to America from Lokve, Yugoslavia (now known as Croatia) in the early 1900's with two young children in tow.  Once they landed in Michigan (their first stop) my grandmother and her younger sister were born. From there they made Roslyn, Washington their home.  A small, Croatian coal mining community where my grandparents met and fell in love.  If Josephine and Nick could see now the legacy their union has produced. I doubt they ever would have imagined that 63 people would gather back in the town where it all began honoring and celebrating what was started over 100 years ago. But that's exactly what happened on July 4th weekend, 2014.

Let's start with the "back story." Most of my extended family has remained close to home in the Seattle area. There are a chosen few of us that have ventured away from the nest for reasons ranging from love to jobs to wanderlust. When my mom's cousin Tom and his family of 7 came to visit from Chicago, someone would throw together an impromptu picnic and softball game.  This happened every few years but once the next generation grew up and more of us moved away, the visits were less and less frequent.  As were the reunions. Weddings and funerals seemed to be the only venue where we would see our distant relatives for a quick catch-up.  Inevitably, the subject of a reunion would enter the conversation only to be forgotten as soon as we all drove (or flew) away. In 1991, we all gathered at my  great uncle Charlie's property for a pig roast (yes, we really roasted a pig) but no softball game followed and within a few years he passed away. 

In 2003 my grandma died and her younger sister, Sylvia, left us in early 2011. That generation of women who instilled such a strong love of family connection and tradition was now gone. In July of that same year, some of us cousins were together for a weekend getaway when talk of a reunion resurfaced.  We got out pencil and paper and began compiling a list of family members from each of the four siblings. That was the furthest the idea went. Everyone seemed to desire reuniting but who would take the reins? 

Last summer the discussion started again between me and my mom. I could hear in her voice that this was so important to her but she's not an initiator or administrator by nature. Someone with those skills and that drive needed to make it happen. When I drove away from her house, I began to feel a tug on my heart.  I kept resisting the tug. I kept rationalizing why I was the last person to even consider taking on such a task.  In a casual conversation with my mentor, I mentioned this small issue and informed her that I was tired of no one ever following through on these conversations and there was no way I was going to be the one to take it on. I gave her all the reasons and excuses I could come up with.  She stared at me and started crying while she expressed her own sadness that her kids don't have relationships with their cousins or know their family heritage and where they come from. She shared her experience in researching her family geneaology and the profound loss she felt at never meeting her extended family on either side.  She begged me to reconsider and pray about my involvement in planning this long anticipated and talked about reunion. Before she even finished talking, I didn't need to spend days or weeks praying.  I knew what I needed to do.

I gathered as many emails as I could and sent out an announcement that a Chebuhar family reunion would take place on July 4th at my house.  We'd have a big barbecue, go to the high school for our traditional family softball game and end the evening with fireworks on our property. The response was overwhelmingly positive but one in particular was quite intriguing. A family member (who shall remain nameless) responded with a request to meet with me and share some ideas and suggestions he/she had about this event. I figured this person would suggest that we all go to the city park in Roslyn and have a picnic and softball game.  Being close to our family's hometown would make sense but I really, really wanted to host the party.  Boy was my assumption off.

I never, in a million years, would have guessed that the purpose of our meeting was not only that this person wanted to have our gathering in Roslyn but that it be held at the 4-star resort and all lodging, airfare and transportation expenses would be covered by an "anonymous donor." Is your jaw dropping?  I believe mine stayed that way for the remainder of our conversation and my drive back home. I was absolutely flabbergasted. To house 63 people, and fly in 17 of them was not a drop in the bucket.  I couldn't wait to send an addendum to my email with this change of events. 

After at least a month of research and never ending emails, we finally settled on our accommodations.  We found one huge house that would work perfectly for our evening gatherings and two other houses  to hold each family contingent.  The overflow would stay at the lodge in studio rooms. Almost everyone in my generation was on board with helping in anyway possible so we scheduled a planning meeting, delegated responsibilities and reconvened on July 3rd.  It truly went off without a hitch.  

We had an equal amount of planned activities as we did down time. The weekend started with a welcome reception at the big house on Thursday night.  It was such a joy to watch everyone get reacquainted.  My cousin, Michelle put together a timeline that was hung on the wall and followed the entire perimeter of the main floor.It was such a hit!  Everytime I looked around, someone was mesmerized by this. Michelle (one of our most creative family members) documented every birth, death and marriage from the date my great-grandparents were married. We all added our own pictures throughout this masterpiece.  There were 90 life events recorded!  90! My uncle Chuck made a display board with all the naturalization and immigration documents from the trip to Ellis Island.  

On Friday (July 4th) everyone had the option to take the Roslyn tour of the museum, cemetery and town, play in a golf tournament or none of the above.  Late in the afternoon we all gathered for a game of "How well do you know your Croatian heritage?"  The format was a cross between "Family Feud" and "Cash Cab". The second generation created the questions, and my generation of cousins formed teams who had to guess the answers.  It was HILARIOUS! After the winners were announced, we enjoyed an amazing Chicago style dinner compliments of my cousin Tom and his boys who drove out with all the fixins to feed our huge crew. Afterwards we attempted an entire group photo in the midst of toddlers melting down and the usual complications of corraling that many people in one place to accomplish a task.  We did a fair job but the picture will definitely not be mistaken as professional quality. 

But then Uncle Sam showed up and relieved the stress of the photography session.

 And so did these two patriotic babes......

Saturday,our last full day together, began with each of the four family contingents having breakfast together at our respective houses.  Because we weren't all staying in one place, it was a great time to connect with our own cousins and aunts and uncles. The resort had an enormous park with a playfield and we reserved a portion of it for the traditional softball game professionally organized by cousins Kristin and Alexa. Forty of us squared off into two teams and began with a homerun derby by age group followed by a five inning game.  Our pitcher (who pitched for both teams) declared a perfect tie at the game's end. It was a ball! (pun intended)

Although we knew we were the real winning team.
These sore losers declared they beat us.  Yeah, right.

The whole gang gathered one last time at the big house and we started the evening off with an awards ceremony.  Some of the categories and winners were pre-determined such as "traveled the furthest"; "matriarch" and "patriarch."  My cousin Jennifer passed out ballots the previous night asking family members to choose who had the best smile, best laugh, who had changed the least since our last reunion and a few other categories.  It was priceless watching Jen announce the winners and seeing and hearing everyone's reactions. 

Judy tied with Tom & Nancy for most grandchildren

Owen, age 3 months (his big brother Charlie accepted his award) got a baby Beaver for being the newest ancestor. Their last name is Beavers.

Uncle Bob has the best laugh

Charles & Gloria had the "staying power" for being married the longest: 47 years!

Finally, we dined on a Mexican buffet put together by our professionally trained chef, cousin Brian. 
Some said their goodbyes that night and others came back the next morning for one more hug--or two. As we pulled out of the driveway and pointed our car west, I was overcome with emotion and tears and thought:  I wouldn't have changed a thing.  I'm so glad I responded to that initial heart tug and my friend's gentle plea so God could do his thing and remind us where we came from and with whom we belong. As crazy and dysfunctional as all families are, they are also sacred and special.  I wouldn't trade this one for the world. 

Nick and Josephine started something good.  Very good.