Family Reunions

     In the early part of the twentieth century the American family unit was far different from the cozy clan which represented the family in the latter part of the century. Being a primarily rural nation, Americans living on farms looked at children not as financial drains upon the family budget, but rather as additional sources of funding and labor. With this outlook, the family grew in number. My father, born of a farming family in Western Oklahoma, was one of fifteen children, and my mother was one of eight. Although primarily a “city” family, my mother’s family, like many other city-living families, embraced the concept of the child being a contributor to the family welfare. Although surrounded by loving parents and supportive brothers and sisters, a child understood that there were responsibilities to be shouldered and duties to be performed. Every member made a contribution to the overall success and harmony of the family. Perhaps this concept was in keeping with the American philosophy that hard work and initiative always resulted in rewards and benefits. However, it may have been just a matter of survival. The early twentieth century saw the Great Depression wreck havoc on the American economy and create an atmosphere of economic struggle that few people living today can understand. As a result, children were put to work at an early age, either in the home, in the fields, or in a form of employment. Children of the Great Depression Era never forgot the early lessons of childhood. Seeing their parents lose everything due to lost jobs, lost crops, and lost health, these Depression children tended to be very frugal most of their adult lives and carried a distrust of banks and investments, but they also understood the value of hard work. Many felt strong loyalties to their employers as persons who contributed to their financial successes and were loathe to changes jobs, preferring the perceived security of a longtime relationship.The main point of this discussion, however, is that families were BIG. Ten, twelve, fifteen children were not uncommon. Compare this fact to today’s family unit which averages somewhere between four and five and it becomes easy to understand how the social fabric of a nation can be affected by such a dramatic change in its structure. Consider also our future, into which we can project that for the majority of children being born in the coming years, there may not even BE a family unit as we understand it…i.e. married mother and father and siblings. As dramatic as the family changes of the past 75 years have been, the changes in the future may be just as startling.
     This brings us to the discussion of one of the vanishing phenomenons of the large family era…the family reunion. By the very fact of many children existing in a family, it draws the conclusion that upon reaching adulthood, these children would scatter to the four winds in search of their fortunes in life. No matter how close the connections to home, the communications options of the mid-twentieth century were limited to letters and expensive phone calls, and we all know that in the daily grind of life time flies when you’re trying to survive in a competitive world. A case in point: my father’s family by 1960 had long since been spread across the United States. With parents deceased, the surviving children over a period of a few months decided the time was ripe to gather again near their old homeplace in Western Oklahoma for a “family reunion.” The ages of the “children” by the time of the first reunion in 1962 ranged from 42 to near 70 years of age, and needless to say they had produced their share of children and even grandchildren, albeit in smaller quantities than their own parents, Levi and Ida Lillian Downing.
     At the time of the first reunion, I was 19 years old, recently married, and in keeping with my youthful immaturity, unaware of the significance of the family reunion. I went to the family reunion to see old cousins and play games, with only brief greetings to my elder uncles and aunts. The reunion was a grand affair with much reminiscing and domino playing (a major Downing vice in those early years.) It was so successful that another was planned the next year and into the indefinite future. But in the coming years, the inevitable began to happen. During the reunion in 1963, one of the “children,” an elder aunt of mine was stricken. I was the driver as we raced for the nearest hospital ten miles away, but it was too late. Amazingly, the same event occurred the next year with one of my elder uncles. In the fall of 1963, I joined the United States Air Force, and my wife and I lived a nomadic existence in the U.S. and Germany for the next few years. Unable to attend the reunions, we received occasional news of another passing of an uncle or aunt. To be honest, I’m not sure when the last reunion was held, but when the number of original children dwindled to a precious few, even they were too fragile to make the trip to Oklahoma, and the Downing Reunion of the Children of Levi and Ida Lillian Downing ceased. Their offspring, having created families of their own, internalized their interests within their own families, and though keeping in occasional contact with their near and far cousins, each new offspring family developed its own traditions and memories. It is the natural progression of life
     In 2007 I was amazed to hear that there was another Downing reunion gaining traction. One of my dad’s older sisters, Mildred, had married Verlon Phillips when my dad was still a youth. Together they had four children, but shortly after the birth of the last one, Verlon passed away. She remarried to Manuel Pineda, with whom they had eight children…giving Aunt Mildred and Uncle Manny a total of twelve kids. One of Aunt Mildred’s childen, David, was close to me and like the brother I never had but was killed in an industrial accident in 1967. The others, however, have survived and flourished. Apparently about ten years ago the Phillips/Pineda clan, with their ages by then ranging from about 40 to 65 years of age, began having their own family reunion. In a spirit of true graciousness, they eventually decided to call it a Downing reunion and invite anyone from any branch of the Levi/Ida Lillian Downing family tree to visit. Only by accident did I hear that there was a Phillips/Pineda family site on My It was too late into 2007 when I learned all these facts to visit the reunion of that year, and then as luck would have it, 2008 was not a good year for me. I went through open heart surgery and then it was discovered I had leukemia for which I received chemotherapy treatments the last half of the year. In 2009 I was still recovering my strength after being declared cancer free, thankfully, so it was not until this year that things worked out that I could plan to attend. Even then, Shirley could not go with me because she was recovering from knee replacement surgery, so I was on my own. The reunion was held at Tyler State Park, just north of Tyler, Texas. The reunion to be from Friday night till sometime Sunday, so I planned to arrive there around Saturday and stay through whatever festivities occurred Sunday. I left home about and headed up IH45 towards Tyler. Exiting IH45 at Buffalo, I traveled up U.S.79 through Palestine and then highway 155 toward Frankston and Tyler.
     I have come to the conclusion that Houston does not really represent the state of Texas. To live in a major metropolitan area like Houston requires you to give up a certain amount of your personal identity. We homogenize into an anthill of humanity constantly scurrying about in every direction trying to survive and make some sense of life. Getting away from this concentration of activity allows one to see what the real world is like. Personally, I would prefer an area where the local Brookshire Brothers and Ace Hardware are the largest outlets in town. Places where you don’t have Chevrolet dealerships…you have one dealership selling Chevrolets, GMCs, Buicks, Cadillacs, Volkswagens, and Hondas. Places where Fred’s Quick Stop is the main convenience store and Dairy Queen is the place to go on a Saturday night. Places where the internet is only available by dial-up connection. (Okay…now I’ve gone too far, but you get the idea,) When I get to areas like his, I feel a lessening of the tension and I feel like I can put my gun on safety…maybe even take the shell out of the chamber. In places like Houston, you always stay aware of what’s around you.
     After checking into my motel room at the grandiosely named “America’s Best Value Inn,” (Actually, it was a very nice room at a good price.), I headed to Tyler State Park, just a ten minute drive up the road. I discovered a beautiful, forested park with a scenic lake complete with swimming area, lots of camping areas, and a pavilion in Area 10 reserved for the Phillips/Pineda/Downing reunion. The place was already swarming with first, second, and third cousins, many of whom I had never met. Fortunately, sitting outside were a couple of familiar faces (only because I had seen their photos on the MyFamily site), and I was able to begin greeting my cousins from years past…many of whom I not see in nearly 40 years. The next 24 hours was as enjoyable a time as I have had recently. To be able to reestablish contact with my relatives was a privilege, and, in observing the offspring of Verlon and Mildred and Manny and Mildred, I couldn’t help but sense a déjà vu, as if I were reliving those early Downing reunions of the 1960s. Forty years later, the Phillips/Pineda clan is repeating the traditions begun by the Levi/Ida Lillian Downing family. We who were the kids running about while the oldsters talked endlessly about the good old days have morphed into those same oldsters talking about our “old days” while our kids and grandkids go roaring about. It is a microcosm of life, and I’m glad to be a part of it. The Phillips/Pineda clan will have the same experiences in the future as the previous Downings as time begins to take a mortal toll. The lesson to be learned here is that we should value today. We appreciate the past and look forward to the future, but it’s in the present that we live, and we need to live it to the fullest.
     The last remaining child of Levi and Ida Downing, my Uncle Thurl, now 90 years old and frail, was at the reunion and helped create a connection from the present to the past. It seems unbelievable to realize that, of the children of Levi and Ida Lillian Downing, the first child, Lettie, was born on October 8, 1896, and the last, Thurl, was born on September 28, 1919. With Uncle Thurl still living, it means that there has been a child of Levi and Ida Lillian Downing living on this earth for the last 114 years. Truly incredible.
     Beyond renewing contact with the Phillips/Pineda family, it was good to see many of my other Downing cousins from Texas and Oklahoma, also. The years have left their marks on all of us, but we shared many good memories and I am thankful we were able to visit again. To the children and grandchildren (even great-grandchildren) who ran gleefully around the pavilion (just as we oldsters did 40 years ago) while we new oldsters reminisced about the old days, if I could give a word of advice it would be…value and appreciate those who are around you today. There is no promise of tomorrow.