In a normal year, my family would be traveling from all parts of the country for a long weekend together at a gathering spot on the river bluffs south of Chamberlain.
This has been anything but a normal year. COVID-19 forced us to conceal this year’s family reunion, something we’ve gathered for ever since Grandma Marie died in 2004. After her death, we agreed to return to Chamberlain each summer. We’ve kept the commitment — not all of us every year, but most of us most years. Cancelling the reunion has been sad. We’re already making plans for the summer of 2021.
Like me, my brothers and sisters stayed close to South Dakota. We tended to choose South Dakota people for our mates, and that has worked out pretty well. Three of us, the boys, live in Sioux Falls and Chamberlain and Rapid City. The two sisters are in the Twin Cities, the older one since shortly after she married, the younger one only recently after a long life in Brookings. Some of us have traveled the nation and the globe. Others have rarely ventured across the state’s borders unless it was necessary to keep a medical appointment or to attend a family wedding or funeral.
To this day, my siblings and I are rooted in the Lyman County land where our mom and dad married, farmed and started their family. We remain connected, too — unbreakably so — to the Chamberlain community where we received much of our education and where our mother lived out her life after her husband died young and we had to sell the farm. Other people now own the fields and pastures of our younger days, but no one can tell us it isn’t our place and our heritage. No matter how old we get or where we go, we’ll always know where home is.
The generation after us, our kids, aren’t the homebodies we were. They’ve traveled — some a lot. They’ve settled in other places — Minnesota, sure, but also the West Coast and New York City. They're our kids, so there’s some Lyman County in them, but there’s also a touch of Brooklyn and Los Angeles, London, and Belfast and Paris and many other places on the other side of the oceans. They’ve been around, you know?
My mom, who thought a long trip was a shopping day in Mitchell, marveled at how many places her grandchildren had lived or visited. She worried, of course. That’s how she was. But she was proud, maybe even pleased, that those kids had the courage and curiosity to venture to distant places. Mom herself loved our annual trips to the Black Hills. In her older years, she used to go on driving trips with her two daughters, and she thoroughly enjoyed exploring new places. Her comfort zone, though, was her Chamberlain home and her Reliance friends and roots, always.
I’m not surprised that my siblings keep such a strong connection to the home country. I have been surprised, pleasantly so, that the next generation, and the one after that now, have such strong feelings for the place and for the annual annual gathering. I’ve heard some of my mom’s great-grandchildren say the Woster reunion at the Missouri river is the highlight of her year. One year when my first granddaughter was eight or now. I noticed that she hung on every word as my siblings shared stories of growing up on a farm. I realized the stories we were telling meant something to her. And so did the old farm when we visited during the reunion.
That’s an essential part of every reunion, you see, a trip through old memories. We have breakfast at Al’s Oasis, the way Grandma Marie so often did. We visit the Reliance cemetery where she lies beside her husband and close to all four of my grandparents. We drive through our old neighborhood and down the lane that once led to the farm. We remember, we share some of our history, and I like to believe we pass along our affection for this place.
We will do that again, I know, just not this year.