Growing up, I lived within an hour’s drive of all my cousins. So I grew up really knowing them, and my aunts and uncles. They were a regular part of my life. I saw them at nearly every holiday and even ran into them at concerts and sporting events. I loved it! We all did. I think I took this for granted — that this is how it is for everyone, and how it would be for my own little family.
For my children, getting to know their extended family will be different. I am one of six kids. The last 10 years have brought a lot of change for my family: 5 marriages, 13 babies born, and a lot of moving around! We are literally scattered from sea to shining sea, from the coasts of Oregon to Virginia, in Texas and a few spots in between. In fact, no two of my parents’ children are closer than 9 hours by car. Even Grandma and Grandpa now live 12 hours from the closest grandchild.
This is not what we had envisioned for our children. How would they get to know their cousins? We will not be attending each other’s school plays or trick-or-treating together. Family reunions are definitely in the plan, but one week every other year doesn’t feel like enough.
Here are a few of the things we have tried, with much success.
These started out as a personalized gift for the grandparents about 6 years ago. Everyone submits pictures of their families celebrating a list of holidays (St. Patrick’s Day, the Fourth of July, Christmas, birthdays, etc.), plus any major events in the family (big trips, a new baby, career milestones). The first year we filled and printed one book. The next year we filled three. Now we fill seven, and we print one each family. This series of books has become a treasured piece of family history and a favorite story book for my children.
We recently had a family reunion. All 25 of us crowded into one snug little beach house. My sister sent out family questionnaires in advance by email to all the families. She collected all the answers, one page per person, in a little binder and sent a copy to each family. Each page had a photo, name, and age, and then listed 10 of the most interesting answers from the questionnaire for each person, such as phobias, favorite TV show, favorite book, and recent accomplishments. It has been fun to read and a fun reference book for my kids. It occurs to me now that this is a great way to capture a moment in our families’ history. In 10 or 20 years we can look back and get a very personal look at how we all were in 2011.
It also made for a fun family quiz game at the beach house reunion. “For 10 points, who sleeps with a stuffed raccoon named ‘Rowdy’?” You would have to read the binder to know.
After the family reunion, I didn’t want my kids to forget their cousins’ faces. They are still so young that I was really worried about it. Imagine my joy when I stumbled onto custom family cards on MyHeritage.com. I now have two sets, one for my side of the family, and one for my husband’s side. There are two cards for each person, with a photo and name. We play memory with ours.
This one is a little more pricey, but you may already have the equipment. At Christmas we exchange gifts between families. Grandma and Grandpa give to all the grandchildren. It is always good to give, but it better to give and watch them open it. Last Christmas we worked out a schedule — which in hindsight was way more complicated than necessary. Everyone had an iPod Touch with FaceTime. (There are lots of other options). We set aside certain gifts until the appointed time. Grandma and Grandpa were able to tune it to watch all their grandkids open at least some of their presents. This was actually made easier by the distance. Since we were in different time zones, my kids were only just waking up in the Mountain time zone as their cousins on the east coast were finishing up.
For years we have been making family calendars, which include everyone’s birthdays and anniversaries. This used to be a tedious job for me. Rounding up all the images and all the dates took days. I would then do custom layouts for each month. (After all, I’m a graphic designer.) They turned out great, but took me hours! But that was then. This year I logged on to MyHeritage.com and had a calendar done in just minutes! I wish that product had existed 6 years ago. It would have saved me a lot of headaches.
None of this is quite the same as piling into the car for a short drive to visit aunts, uncles, and cousins. But for us, scattered as far as we are, it keeps distant family members from feeling like strangers.