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Seeing the family tree in one place


WORLD Radio - Seeing the family tree in one place

Family reunions are on the decline, but a clan in Alabama is pushing back with bi-annual gatherings

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MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday, September 19th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Family reunions. Used to be these gatherings were the one and only opportunity to see relatives who lived far away.

In most cases it’s the matriarchs and the patriarchs who provide the fuel that keep the annual reunion engine running. But what happens when the family founders are gone? WORLD’s Myrna Brown has the story.

MYRNA BROWN CORRESPONDENT: Underneath an outdoor pavilion, rhythm and blues blares from a bluetooth speaker. Grandparents gush over their growing grandchildren and first cousins strike poses for selfies. Sixty plus men, women, and children from six different states have gathered under one big roof. And each one proudly wears a matching t-shirt with the name Eaton big and bright across their chests.

WILLIAM HENRY EATON: Our family tree, there are Willis Eaton and Annie Eaton. And I’m on the Annie Eaton side.

That’s 75-year-old William Henry Eaton, Bill for short, talking about the generation of Eatons that came before him.

WILLIAM HENRY EATON: I’m the fourth generation. My mom had 12 kids. I have living six sisters.

Line dancing to the beat of the music is one of Bill’s sisters, 80-year-old Mae.

MAY EATON: Today, I’m the matriarch. I’m the oldest one here.

For decades, Mae and Bill’s generation championed what’s become an Eaton family tradition: the bi-annual family reunion. Today, they’re passing the torch to the next generation.

MAE EATON: Because it’s all about them. We’re going on. Later they’ll go back and say, "Oh, is that me?" And then they can connect the dots.

But will the Gen-Xers, millennials and Gen Zers pick up where the Baby Boomers and the Silent Generations left off? Bill Eaton has faith his nieces and nephews will, despite what statistics suggest.

WILLIAM HENRY EATON: Family reunions are phasing out because the younger generation don’t see the importance of it.

Last year, the Family Travel Association and New York University conducted a poll of adult parents in the United States with children age 17 or younger. The poll found that only three out of ten of those parents have taken their kids to a family reunion. The reasons vary. For one, social media! The ease of connecting online takes some of the incentive out of face-to-face gatherings. And special events like weddings and funerals have also replaced family reunions. And there are other factors that make it hard to get to a family reunion: Cost and distance.

AUDIO: Alright family we’re so excited about being here. It is eating time. Let us prepare for our grace.

It took 59-year-old Anthony Eaton 11 hours to travel by car to his family reunion. Still, the fifth generation husband, father, and grandfather, says he’s determined to leave a strong legacy.

ANTHONY EATON: I am the youngest child of Jesse and Pcola Eaton and we currently live in Raleigh, North Carolina. So I have with me my wife Kimbla, my older daughter Amberly and the younger daughter Antonyece. And Antonyece and Maurice are married and their three children, the oldest, Gordon and Winston. They are, how old are you? Six.

With his grandson Winston on his knee, Anthony says the best way to teach his children and grandchildren how to nurture family ties is to model it.

ANTHONY EATON: Nothing could have stopped us from being here and that is what they have seen.

WINSTON MATHES: Spend time with our family. [Applause] Ahhhh. That’s good’s Winston.

Lingering over paper plates of fried fish, hot dogs and potato salad is 37-year-old Willie Stallworth. He says his wife and three sons have missed a few reunions over the years but the Georgia residents don't intend on making that a habit.

WILLIE STALLWORTH: You know at this point in time, we’re getting older, family’s getting a little bit older, you want to spend as much time with people as you can. To create memories basically.

It often takes time to create memories. That’s why Willie’s second cousin and reunion organizer Marshall Davis Jr. made some changes to the reunion schedule.

MARSHALL DAVIS JR.: And we decided to do it and do a banquet and do a two-day event.

AUDIO: [Singing] I once was lost but now, I’m found...

Along with the Friday night banquet, and the Saturday picnic, the Eatons spent Sunday morning in their hotel’s meeting room for early morning devotion. It’s what Amberly Cooper, another sixth generation Eaton, calls the most important part of their family reunion weekend.

AMBERLY: Society is so individualistic and to be able to come together as a family, knowing your roots. Knowing where you’ve come from. Being able to see people who are on that same tree. It’s just a beautiful blessing.

AUDIO: [Singing] Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms...

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Myrna Brown in Robertsdale, Alabama.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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