In September 2014 I journeyed to Sioux Falls, S.D. for the Rust Family Reunion. Below is an adaption of a speech I gave to my Toastmasters club about the experience. This September I’ll be lucky enough to do it again.
Tales of time spent with families on vacation have a special place in America’s collective mythology. There’s the car trip across the country beset with hilarious disasters along the way – it’s the subject of books, memoirs and comedies spanning the entire Chevy Chase oeuvre.
Or there’s Thanksgiving and Christmas with the relatives – whether it’s the first turkey dinner with the in-laws, or that holiday right after a hotly contested election. There have been years when I asked my Sunday School class to pray that I wouldn’t strangle any of my kin.
In years past we had the obligatory holiday snaps developed after the trip with which to bore our friends and neighbors. Those of a certain age may remember the slides we had to sit through. Now with Facebook and Instagram we can make our friends jealous (or put them to sleep) while we’re still on the trip! Relax, this will be all stories and no pictures of people you’ve never met.
Last September (2014) I went to see my father’s people at the Rust Family Reunion. Each year his six brothers and sisters gather and spend the better part of a week together. Then on Friday night, as many of their kids, grandkids, great-grandkids AND great-great-grandkids come into town for the buffet dinner at the Royal Fork restaurant. The past few years I’ve been lucky enough to go up for a few days to spend time with a side of the family I hardly ever see – and I was lucky enough to go again in 2014.
The scene is Sioux Falls, S.D. – one of the windiest places in the lower 48. The natives act like it’s still summer, but it was autumn to me! Dad and his siblings were all born on a family farm outside Adrian, Minn., a small community about 45 minutes away. Sioux Falls was their big town, where they went to the Fair and to the State Theatre for movies. Most of the relatives still live within a couple states’ drive, but for us it was a 1,100 mile flight.
Let me introduce you to the case of characters. Aunt Betty Lou is the oldest at 86. She was my roommate for the week at the motel. Uncle LeRoy is the next oldest – he recently turned over day-to-day operations of the Rust Family Farm to my cousin John, the sixth generation Rust to run the place. Next up in the batting order is Aunt Marlys, who drives in five hours with my cousin Tim from outside Fargo, N.D. (The Midwestern states are HUGE.) Uncle Ed – oh, you’ll hear more about him – comes over from Wisconsin with Aunt Elaine. Uncle Bob is next in line, right before my Dad. And Aunt Audrey is the baby of the family at 69. She was a little upset with me for not bringing my swimsuit on this trip – she didn’t want to take a dip in the pool by herself.
Aunt Anne, Uncle Bob’s wife, books rooms for us at the Empire Falls Best Western. It meets all our needs – an extra-large room where we all gather; a free hot breakfast each day with waffles and omelets, and most importantly – this is a key selling point: freshly made cookies each afternoon. Every day the “elders” would send me or Aunt Audrey downstairs to check on the cookie situation. And report back so all the uncles could head downstairs and get cookies.
So what do we do? Well, what do you think a bunch of old people do? We sit around and talk. And drink coffee. And eat home-made munchies that everyone brings to the party, besides the motel-made cookies. And we shop. Fortunately, Empire Mall is within walking distance. Unfortunately, it lies beyond an 8-lane road which handles all the traffic coming into Sioux Falls from Interstate 29. Imagine herding 10 people over the age of 70 across a road like that. I felt like a crossing guard at the Alterra Senior Citizens center. I wanted to yell “Hold hands! Stay with your group!”
Because so many of the folks are getting on, I wanted all the family history, knowledge and lore only they could share. What was it like growing up? What were Grandma and Grandpa Rust really like?
Uncle Ed stole the show with his tales. Like all the boys, he went into the service soon after high school. Back then, they were eligible for the draft. Uncle Ed served during the Korean War, and once he came home, he had to find a job. Finding a job wasn’t the problem. In five days he went through five jobs. Now before you think he was a wastrel read on as to what these jobs entailed. One was at a cracker company doing all the grunt work. He put in a full 8 hours and decided, I can do better. Next he went to work at the Campbell’s Soup factory in town. Any job where they start you off pulling the chickens off the truck is pretty low on the totem pole. Worse – when your work environment includes something known as the “Blood Room” – Uncle Ed wisely decided to turn in his ID badge and move on to a higher calling.
That next day Uncle Ed joined Uncle Bob at the county road department. Listening to the two of them laugh about that experience, you’d never know that years later they’d both go on to big success in their own businesses.
That was the week – funny family stories, time spent catching up and eating far too much. And guess what – I lied to you. There will be pictures! I’m adding links to previous posts on past family reunions so you can see the town of Sioux Falls (a beautiful place) and the family farm.
The first week of September wasn’t a National Lampoon-style “vacation from hell” at all. I’m so glad I went. If you have older members in your family – take the time now to sit down with them. Or get in the car or plane and go visit! Once they’re gone you’ll wish you had more memories. Thanks to this crazy week I do.