Every single year without fail, my extended family on my mom’s side gets together for a family reunion during the first weekend of August. There are about 40 of us total, give or take, spanning four generations, and when I let people in on this fact, they are often blown away. “Every year?” they’ll ask, incredulous, their eyes widening. “Really? That many people, every year?”
Perhaps due to our increasingly busy, on-the-move culture, I’ve found that more and more people are amazed to learn about our annual gathering of extended family; they almost always want to know what it’s actually like. I’m always happy to share—the memories and the traditions that my family have created each year have kept us close and have turned me into a firm believer in the joy of the family reunion.
My 92-year-old grandfather, Otis Healy (whom we all call “Big O”) is our fearless leader, the man behind the magic. A true family guy at heart, he has meticulously planned—and generously paid for—each and every Healy Family Reunion since the tradition began in the early 1980s. The reunions have been a constant for all 34 years of my life, and yet I still don’t take them for granted. I recognize that it’s rare to have a family patriarch who funds a yearly family reunion and to have a family that actually gets along in the first place; I’m deeply grateful to have both.
Our reunions usually take place at a resort or hotel in Southern California, where my mom and her three siblings grew up. While the majority of the family still lives in the area, some members of the crew travel in from New York, Boston, Rhode Island, Dallas, and Virginia. Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when there were 11 cousins under the age of 10, the events would often span almost a full week—and usually the resort staff loved being along for the ride. One year, when we were staying at Kona Village Resort on Hawaii’s Big Island, the girl cousins made up a smoothie and named it after ourselves, using the first letter of each of our names. By the end of the week, we were “resort famous” around the property for creating the popular KJAM (Katie, Jennifer, Annie, and Meg) smoothie. We still talk about our “early rise to fame.” (Unfortunately, Kona was washed away by a tsunami in 2011, but may be reopening as a Rosewood property in 2022.)
As the cousins got older, Big O traded in full weeks for one doable weekend, since 100 percent attendance is always the goal. As some of us neared high school age, the festivities got a little more animated, culminating in an infamous cruise to Tijuana. Oh, the cruise! That year, the “Cousin Class of 1985” all turned 18—the legal drinking age in Mexico. We were all a little too enthusiastic about finally being able to drink in front of our parents, and I ended up getting sick . . . on Big O’s feet. Literally on his feet. It’s a running joke in our family to this day.
The laughter continued over the years in other fun and beautiful spots, including Temecula Creek Inn, where we went on a hot air balloon ride over wine country at 5 a.m.; Paradise Point in San Diego, where my newly raw-vegan cousin Kevin introduced us all to the wonders of eating fresh hibiscus straight off the tree; and Lake Arrowhead Resort and Spa, where I leaned into the reputation I earned in Tijuana and brought a wine rack as a joke—and even wore it over my dress at our family beach barbecue.
That’s the thing about my family: We all have a silly sense of humor, one that comes out in full force during the reunions. And our opportunities for goofiness increased in 2011 when Big O married his third wife (sadly, he lost both my grandmother Betty and his second wife Barbara to cancer), a wonderful woman named Joann, whom everyone calls “Bombie.” Big O and Bombie decided to combine family forces, bringing the reunion roster up from 23 or so to around 40.
In the past few years, the new, much larger crew has started working together as one big team to choose a secret theme for each reunion to surprise Big O and Bombie. During the 2016 election year, for example, the theme was “Big O for President!” We made election pins; dressed up in red, white, and blue hats for the family photo (there’s always a family photo); and carried a huge banner that read “Big O for President” through The Ranch at Laguna Beach, where we were staying. When he turned 90, the theme was “Absolut Otis—90 Proof,” a tribute to his love of a double vodka on the rocks, which he drinks every day at 5 p.m. on the nose. Once again, we gave the theme the banner treatment, and we also made bottles of “Absolut Otis” vodka as souvenirs.
But no matter what the theme is, certain elements of the reunion never change. Every day we gather at 5 p.m. in the “hospitality suite”—Big O and Bombie’s room. Big O stocks the room with varied snacks from Costco, which always include at least one enormous tub of salted mixed nuts. He’ll also often ask people to give speeches if they did something especially noteworthy in the preceding 12 months. Last year, four of the cousins (myself included) had either just gotten married or were about to do so, and he asked us what we learned about wedding planning and marriage itself. While we had all had slightly different experiences, we agreed that it’s the marriage, not the wedding, that matters. And you have to have a sense of humor to make a marriage work.
Photo by Tom Daly Photography; design by Emily Blevins
In 2011, Big O married Bombie and the family reunion attendees almost doubled, making for even more merriment.
In the end, that’s why our family reunions work, too; we genuinely crack each other up. And we also get down. We usually enlist a resort DJ for the big party on Saturday night, and Uncle Mike busts out the worm. One year, after that ridiculous song “Red Solo Cup” came out, we spent hours making red Solo cup gear to surprise Big O and Bombie on the big night. Some of the best times of my life have been out there on that dance floor, laughing my face off with my family, and that’s exactly why Big O keeps planning these reunions year after year after year. “The reunions solidify the word ‘family’ to me,” he told me. “I get such great joy out of seeing everybody together and interacting with one another. . . . It’s as simple as that.”
Sadly, in our busy, all-digital-everything, increasingly disconnected world, that simplicity can be hard to find. And a genuine connection with family—related or chosen, however you define it—is more important than ever. So as a self-appointed Reunion Whisperer, I can assure you that no matter how many miles you have to fly, or days you have to take off from work, or reply-all email chains you have to stay on top of to make your get-togethers happen, it’s worth it. Reunions can take place anywhere, whether that’s your cousin’s grassy backyard or an Airbnb in the middle of nowhere. The point is that they take place—with all of their laughter and their love and maybe even their red Solo cups.
>>Next: The World’s Best Family Hotels