Woster: The essential reunion cherished again
Over the years of our reunions, as we talked and laughed and sang, I could see that my brothers and sisters had reached some level of acceptance that we had no living parents.
We had a loud, hectic, sometimes crowded family reunion over the weekend, and on Sunday evening I sat by the river considering the four days just passed, and I felt grateful we’d managed it again.
When our mother died in the summer of 2004, her five children — three boys and two girls — decided life is short and uncertain. It isn’t an original thought. When someone dear is gone forever, there’s a longing to hold on to something.
We wished — as many other families have wished, I suppose, after the death of someone essential to their lives — that we had spent more time together while our mother lived to enjoy it. She so loved family gatherings when her kids and grandkids were together talking and laughing and fighting and singing and hugging, even crying. We wished we’d made it home for more Christmases, gotten together for more Thanksgivings, come back more frequently to Brule and Lyman counties where the Woster and McManus roots grow deepest.
We hadn’t done those things often enough while our mother lived. We decided that we could honor her memory and try to keep our family connections firmly fastened by gathering to talk about her, to recall her life with a tall, strong farmer husband and to tell stories of our own shared heritage in the small towns and on the black-land farm where we grew up in central South Dakota. We immediately made reservations for a weekend the next July at a lodge on the Missouri River bluffs south of Chamberlain.
That first year, all five of Marie and Henry Woster’s kids made it home. We wouldn’t have missed it. Most of our kids showed up, too. We even had our mom’s well-traveled old Chevrolet four-door sedan parked at the entrance to the lodge. I remember catching a glimpse of it as Nancy and I drove toward the place. For some reason, I wonder if the massive trunk of the Chevy was packed with an assortment of pillows, blankets, extension cords, jumper cables, box fans, never-opened boxes of shoes, table lamps and not-yet-gifted Cabbage Patch dolls. It always was when our mom went anywhere, even across the river to Al’s Oasis for coffee and pie. You never know, she might say. And, boy, you sure didn’t. It took me a lot of years to figure out I could leave some room in my trunk without the world shifting on its axis.
The first year or two, we spent a fair amount of time crying or near tears as we shared our stories. We discovered that each of us spent a long, long time in one stage of grief or another, and I think we came to understand that was OK. We didn’t need to find closure in a month, a year, five years, or ever. Over the years of our reunions, as we talked and laughed and sang, I could see that my brothers and sisters had reached some level of acceptance that we had no living parents. The sadness we felt so deeply in the early years after mom died gradually became thankfulness that she — and our father — had been our parents and had given us what they had to give.
Each year since that first reunion in 2005, we’ve come home to our river town to be together. We have a meal at Al’s (our mom would have loved that), we visit the cemetery north of Reliance where our parents and so many relatives lie close together, we drive through our old farm country and we spent time on boats on the river. Some years, a whole bunch of our children and their children have made it back. Sometimes the gathering is smaller. Whatever the number, the reunion is an essential few days in our lives. Each year, except for one miss during the pandemic, all five of us siblings have come home.
We’re getting on in years. Our youngest is 70. Our oldest is past 80. A year will come when some of us are no longer around to make it home.
That year will come, but it wasn’t this year. How could I not be grateful for that?