by Carol C. Michels
The first Donahue Family Reunion I remember was in a park north of New York City. I was about seven and an only child. I was thrilled to be related to all those people, particularly the kids. There was a long table with wonderful food piled high and grills fired up for hamburgers.
My strongest recollection was a major juggling contest among the men. It started with one fellow tossing an orange to another and became a hilarious exhibition of round the circle throw and catch, show-off spinning, pitching from behind backs and under knees. Aunt Louise filmed the shenanigans by following oranges instead of athletes. The on-screen result resembled an Olympic Marmalade Marathon but has entertained us for years. And we are still entertaining one another.
Our clan originated in the late 19th century in New York City with the five children of Patrick and Sydney Josephine Johnstone Donahue. All were accomplished artists, musically and otherwise. Robert, one of the country’s pioneer cinematographers, recorded Admiral Byrd’s discovery of the North Pole. Everyone else played piano and sang. Vivid memories of my mother’s generation, were about songs and stories on Sunday afternoons in Grandma’s parlor.
When we get together magic happens. One year we hired a little Dixieland band and danced and sang ourselves silly. Five years ago we decided to revisit our ancestors’ Sunday afternoon musical revue theme and announced a vaudeville show. An unusual collection of talent came out of the woodwork as the highlight of a three-day Cape Cod weekend that also celebrated the 80th birthdays of two favorite aunts. A tent was erected, tables, chairs and a small PA system rented and food assignments divided.
Five guys who never played together appeared with musical instruments and within minutes were strumming and singing terrific stuff. Three seniors from Florida recreated the Andrew Sisters’ version of Rum and Coca-Cola. Maxine, played by 6’1″ Uncle Roy, was a show stopper. Six men ages 16 to 82 sang great Barbershop harmonies. A young mother and her two daughters tap danced to Tea for Two. Another put some of the gents through a very funny version of Simon Says. Five siblings lip-synched to modern classics; two cousins sang Honey Bun from South Pacific; two semi-mature, conservative cousins charmed the crowd by spoofing a Madonna song about bananas. A fifteen-year old cousin wrote a play in which some of the kids lip-synched songs from The Sound of Music. Three teenage boys used a curtain, the head of one, arms of a second and legs of the third to perform a memorable Evening with Mrs. Smedley. Even the Master of Ceremonies amazed us with his hidden talent as a pretty decent magician.
In all, 22 acts demonstrated various levels of talent. Everyone, regardless of age, got into the act as performer or observer, camera operator, cook or artist. While many were practicing or finding costumes, cousin Cindy created clever billboard signs for each act. Four videotapes were edited to one terrific tape by a talented “outlaw” cousin and distributed to all families.
Following the fun of that reunion was a formidable challenge. The result was a Murder Mystery held in conjunction with a 50th anniversary celebration. Seventy-five descendants came to New England from all over the country.
A mystery play was conceived from an Agatha Christie novel. Fifteen actors were cast with attention to personalities willing to make fools of themselves. Again we rented a tent. Cindy masterminded remarkable backdrops painted by willing hands. Everyone came dressed as someone famous.
Among the good sports were a captain in a Florida sheriff’s department who shaved his mustache of 26 years to be Desiree Flambeau, an aging actress with an unseemly past who meets an untimely end. A grandmother needed three costume changes to play her role as an international dress designer. Uncle Bunch finally found a bush jacket to go with his borrowed pith helmet as Major Barry, a veddy British retired officer.
We may not recall the name of the production or the characters, but the warm memory of doing something so fun together will always be clear. Our lives are in places across the country and our only commonalty is a shared set of great-grandparents. But we are genuinely affected by getting to know each other. Letting your hair down and being silly is a great way to do it. Something very special happens when kin connect.
About the author
Carol C. Michels who clearly enjoys her family reunions is a freelance writer and associate producer for TV documentaries. She is a regular contributor and staff editor for a monthly newsletter, Focus on Women. She lives with her husband and family in Wilmington, Delaware.