'Tis the Season for Family Reunions

This photo was taken ca. 1944 when members of the Wilson family gathered together. From left are Silas Rea, Ron Wilson, unknown man in back, Gaveta Reese (?), Ed Wilson, Fred (?) Wilson, Ed Wilson, Hazel Thornton holding daughter Janice, unknown man in back, Samuel Dennis and Altie (Reese) Wilson, Anna B. Wilson Suggs, JoeAnn Jarnigan held by Mary Elizabeth Jarnigan, Joe Jarnigan, unknown man in back, Mary Wilson Lane, possibly H.L. McMahan, Chlora Wilson Rea, and Lucile Wilson.

Warmer weather brings all sorts of get-togethers, what with church homecomings, class reunions, and club picnics.

Every weekend will find hundreds of folks attending family reunions at Newport City Park, the Cosby Campground Pavilion, Parrott-Larue-Myers Park, and KOA campground. Several families in the Del Rio community hold their reunions in conjunction with the annual Decoration Day service at the Clark Cemetery at Deep Gap Church.

I’ve seen pictures of family reunions dating back to the very early 1900s, but I’m sure clans came together well before that. No doubt families came together to welcome home veterans of the Civil War, celebrate their return, and mourn those who died in the conflict. Often a milestone birthday of a patriarch or matriarch of the family served as the catalyst for a family to get together.

My mother was one of seven children. Two lived in Knoxville, two lived in Johnson City, and two remained here in Newport. The seventh child, Aunt Mattie Lee Sisk Neas, who lived in Parrottsville, died quite young in 1941.

In my youth, the family came together rather infrequently, more often at a wedding or a funeral than at an actual reunion. Beginning in the 1970s, the group met yearly at the Waterville Picnic Pavilion the first Sunday in August. By this time, all of the seven Sisk children’s offspring were grown and several of us first cousins had married and started families. Along the way some other Sisk kinfolks came into the picture, especially the Andy Sisk family from Knoxville. How we loved Oscar O’Neal Sisk (“Double O”) and his family!

Every family was responsible for bringing enough food for those in their party. My mother was a firm believer in overcooking. Even though there were only the three of us, she always took enough food for at least a dozen.

Others in the family weren’t quite as committed, but it always worked out that there was a gracious plenty for all. Recipes were swapped (except for Aunt Alberta’s wild rice casserole which she firmly refused to reveal). Hayne Blakely always brought a ripe watermelon and chilled it in the waters of Big Creek before slicing the juicy treat.

Pictures were taken, of course, and how we treasure them today. All of the first generation have now gone on to the big picnic in the sky, and only four of us first cousins remain. Three of them are well past 80.

Once the meal was over and the pictures taken, the rest of the day was spent in general visiting. Stories were swapped—well, let’s just call it like it is—bragging on one’s grandchildren led the way. Now that we have a five-year-old grandson, I truly understand the importance of such vanity.

The O’Neils also gathered at Waterville. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, nearly 200 members of that Irish clan made their way to Waterville. It was an ideal place for us to gather, situated right at the TN/NC state line as it is.

Many came from Western North Carolina – Waynesville, Hazelwood, Maggie Valley, Murphy, Canton, and Clyde. There were only a few of us from Newport, but others drove up from Chattanooga, Knoxville, and even Chestnut Hill.

To say that good cooks abounded in the O’Neil family would be an understatement. How I wish I could have one more serving of Aunt Grace Mehaffey’s chicken and dumplings! Every year she and Uncle Alney arrived from Maggie Valley with a huge kettle of this delicious treat, still steaming from the stove.

Another strong personality at that get-together was Aunt Mary Smith. She was Aunt Grace’s oldest sister. There were ten children in that family and the last two, Aunt Lorene and Uncle Billy, were ten years younger than their older siblings. Sadly their mother died when Aunt Lorene and Uncle Billy were just tiny, so Aunt Mary, by then married and with children of her own, took and reared them as her own children.

Uncle Tossie and Aunt Ollie O’Neil were the parents of fourteen children. That group lived in the Cruso community near Clyde and Canton, North Carolina. Nearly all of them remained in that area and their children and grandchildren numbered in the dozens. I never quite got them all straight—one group had four boys and all of their names started with the letter “D”.

With so many in attendance, there was something for everyone. Many took advantage of the Big Creek waters and when our daughter Amber was about a year old, her Aunt Ruby spent the afternoon dunking her. Amber loved it.

Others gathered on the lower lawn and played touch football, and still others went hiking.

I tended to hang around the with older members—Aunt Mary, Aunt Grace, Cousins Sam and Willie, Cousin Mary Garrison, to name a few—and eavesdrop on their tale-swapping. Aunt Mary, especially, loved to hold court and regale the others with the shortcomings of any absent family member.

I do hope your family has such get togethers. They are to be treasured and will leave your children with lasting memories and connections to their kinfolks.

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