Aug 26, 2013 11:16AM
By Carol Crissey Nigrelli
Since 1985, the Lewandowski clan has met every three years in several different states and always over the Fourth of July weekend. Kathy Aultz of Omaha welcomed more than 250 people, including a two-week-old baby, to her home turf for this year’s reunion. The fest took place at Mahoney State Park, where families stayed in cabins or nearby hotels.
A 90th birthday party for Marian Leach of Omaha, organized by her daughter, Kathy Meier Morris of Columbus, Neb., provided a much-anticipated get-together of the Meier/Leach immediate family in early June. The last time Meier Morris, her two brothers, and their families converged on Omaha (outside of weddings and funerals) was 10 years ago for Leach’s 80th. The community room at Pacific Springs Village in West Omaha, where Leach lives independently, provided an intimate space for heartfelt congratulations.
Three family social gatherings—each different in size, scope, and purpose—nevertheless answer a basic need most Americans share: the need to belong.
“We tell our history through stories. By gathering families together, you have the opportunity to reconnect,” muses Aultz, who, as executive director of the Douglas County Historical Society, dedicates both her personal and professional life to preserving and sharing the past. “Reunions keep us grounded.”
Successful reunions have a central purpose. For Aultz and her relatives, the marriage of Anton and Sophia Lewandowski on May 6, 1919, in central Nebraska provided the reason to celebrate. Aultz’s mother, 88-year-old Esther Lewandowski Kaminski, was the first of 10 children born to the couple.
“I put Grandma and Grandpa’s wedding pictures up a lot of places at the reunion because that’s when our family tree started,” says Aultz.
“We tell our history through stories. By gathering families together, you have the opportunity to reconnect." - Kathy AultzThe family tree now has 449 leaves on it and is still sprouting. Aultz contacted every family by letter over a year ago about the reunion dates and then followed up with several e-mails. A nod to the fierce pride the group feels about their Polish heritage could be found in the handouts: a cookbook with favorite Polish recipes that families e-mailed to Kathy ahead of time, and a refrigerator magnet made of cloth and shaped into a pierogi (Polish dumpling).
The Lewandowski reunions include lots of games for the children, golf tournaments for adults, outings (a busload of people visited the Holy Family Shrine in Gretna), endless buffets, and socializing that lasts into the wee hours of the morning.
Genealogy spurs the Killions to gather biannually. They have traced their roots to an ancestor, possibly Irish, who sailed from England and landed on the shores of North Carolina in 1755. Descendants, many of whom live in Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska, spend reunion time visiting cemeteries, checking dates on gravestones, documenting family historical data, and touring places of historic significance; a passion not necessarily shared by the younger generations.
“Anyone under 40 couldn’t care less about history and antiques because they haven’t reached an age where it’s important to them,” laments Killion, 73, who acts as keeper of the spreadsheet that contains 225 family names, addresses, and phone numbers.
Then, with a wry smile, Killion continues, “I called Omaha Magazine to get some handouts because it has a great events calendar, and she asked me, ‘What age group are we addressing?’ And I said, ‘Seventy and over. You know, yesterday’s teenagers!’”
As reunion organizer for the past 15 years or so, Killion knows the importance of nailing down dates and hotel space at least a year in advance, no matter where the event is held. Almost 100 members of her husband’s family don’t have e-mail, forcing Killion to use the U.S. Postal Service for the initial Save the Date letter that also contains the location and registration information. She then follows up with phone calls.
“Anyone under 40 couldn’t care less about history and antiques because they haven’t reached an age where it’s important to them." - Anna Killion“One of my favorite tricks is to put the invitation on iridescent paper. That way it doesn’t get lost,” chuckles Killion, who’s been married to Jim for 48 years and together raised six children.
No ‘snail mail’ for Meier Morris; she used Facebook and cell phones to gather about 30 members of her immediate family and stepsiblings to Omaha for a reunion that actually served a dual-purpose.
“We had a noon baby shower for one of my daughters, who is due in September, at Upstream that Saturday,” says Meier Morris, who explains that the men played pool and ate lunch there. “Mom’s party was at 7 that evening, and we had it catered. It was easy. Our family stayed at the Embassy Suites La Vista.”
“I was just thrilled to see everybody,” exclaims Marian Leach, a grandmother of eight and great-grandmother of eight (with one on the way). “I couldn’t believe they would go to that trouble and expense to be with me!”
To which her family might respond, why wouldn’t they give back to a woman who continues to give so much to them? Why wouldn’t they celebrate a woman whose strength, vitality, faith, and loving nature sustained her through the heartbreaking loss of two husbands?
“We all stood up and told ‘mom’ stories,” says Meier Morris. “The grandchildren talked about all the trips she took them on; trips to Cozumel, Cancun, Baja. We just wanted her to know that we love her, and we’re very proud of her.”
The Killions, Lewandowskis, and the Meier/Leach families reached through time, miles, and hectic lifestyles to strengthen the ties that bind them—a legacy worth passing down to generations.