Skip and Clare Hellewell have made it a habit to gather as many members as possible of their far-flung family -- which includes their six grown children plus spouses, 15 grandchildren, and Skip's mother, Nina -- every two years for a much-anticipated reunion. Their biennial travels have taken them to destinations around the globe. But the clan's most recent assembly was especially meaningful, since it brought them back to the Utah pioneer town founded by Clare's Swiss ancestors and to a farmhouse that has been in her family for more than 100 years.
It was here that Clare's great-grandfather Johannes Huber, a fruit grower, poet, and historian, settled in 1863. Huber Grove, as the original homestead and apple orchard came to be known, is now part of the state park and is on the National Register of Historic Places. At one time, so many relations lived in these parts that it was called Cousins' Corner.
Wherever they gather, young and old look forward to recurring events. The logistics of organizing and assembling such a large group requires considerable energy, time, and expense, but "it's totally worth it," says daughter Brooke Hellewell Reynolds, a former art director at Martha Stewart Living and Martha Stewart Kids. "In an ideal world we'd all live in the same town and raise our kids together. Our children need to know there's a bigger group that loves them. Seeing my brothers and sisters in person, with all my nieces and nephews, I don't know what else could replace that." Much like Johannes's apple trees planted long ago, the Hellewell family reunion has taken root and flourished.
The Family Olympics is a highlight of the week. Events, including a doughnut-eating contest, encourage friendly competition and mingling, and help break the ice among cousins who might not see one another very often.
With so many people, mealtime can be a major production, so the families take turns with dinner duty each night. Some things, however, never change: Everyone eats together, and a reunion usually includes applesauce made with the family recipe.
They keep the menu simple -- sandwiches, green salad, corn on the cob -- so they can spend more time together at the table or playing games.
After root-beer floats and a card game or two, the evening winds down and the kids cozy up on quilts in pj's. Skip begins to tell his sunset stories, including tales of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower, Johannes Huber's migration to the Utah territory, and the courtship of his own parents. The kids are captivated by the family lore, and Skip relishes in his role as historian.
Here are the Hellewell clan's top tips for organizing a successful family gathering.
Plan Ahead "Some of the best reunions were the ones we started organizing a year ahead," Clare says. Nail down a date and location early, and then start your research.
Be Considerate Keep everyone's travel and financial limitations in mind. Biennial reunions are easier on the wallet and schedule. Plus, everyone will strive to attend if they know the next one isn't for another two years.
Share the Work Take advantage of individual strengths -- the person who is most organized can keep the schedule; the energetic one can plan games. Cook cooperatively, and let each family take on different tasks, such as planning an outing.
Take It Easy Plan activities everyone has come to expect and new ones inspired by your location. But don't schedule every minute. Set aside "do nothing" time to enjoy one another's company, explore nature, and relax.
Keep a Record Designate an official family photographer (or two); take lots of pictures, especially of big events. And don't forget a tripod for the group portrait. Afterward, have a photo book printed for each family.