Families find ways to connect

24-year tradition maintained in outdoor setting
Sisters Rosemary Beaty, left, and Alice Eggert are joined by niece Joan Beardsley at a family reunion Sunday at Memorial Park in Shawano.

Carol Ryczek | NEW MediaRosemary Beaty uses hand sanitizer, a new feature at the Rusch/Jeske family reunion.

Carol Ryczek | NEW MediaVictoria Tollefson, Manitowoc, cleans a table at the pavilion at Shawano’s Memorial Park prior to lunch at a family reunion Sunday.

Carol Ryczek | NEW Media
Carol Ryczek

At a time when everything is turned on its head, something as simple as a family gathering becomes, unexpectedly, news.

When the Rusch/Jeske family reunion met for its 24th time at Shawano’s Memorial Park on Sunday, they weren’t trying to make news. They were trying to remake connections.

“Over the years, we still enjoy just seeing all the new little ones coming into the family. It’s good fellowship, food, games for the kids,” said Joan Beardsley, Oostburg. “We are a pretty close group — enjoy each other’s company.”

The yearly reunion always features a potluck, with family members bringing annual favorites, including desserts. Lots of desserts.

Past reunions have included a baseball game and activities for kids. Other than the meal, the reunion is much more conversation than activity-focused.

The Rusch and Jeske families were brought together through marriage, and though there have been other family gatherings connected to the groups, this one stuck. The families have been getting together since 1996.

Family members usually come from all over the United States, Beardsley said, though travel difficulties might have kept attendance down. Some of the family’s frailer members opted out this year. The family will often reach the limit of its park permit for 50 people, but the group did not reach that level this year.

Other difficulties and family events kept others away, too. Prior to sharing the meal, family members asked for prayers for those who were experiencing illnesses and who had recently passed away.

“Everybody understands the circumstances,” said Rosemary Beaty, of Richfield.

Beaty, who is 87, said she might not have attended if the day had been rainy, which would have forced everyone to pack together in the park shelter. It would have been a difficult decision, she said.

“We have to live our lives, too,” she said.

“We respect each other’s space,” Beardsley said. “We decided, ‘Let’s enjoy each other’s company while we can.’”

Pat Watters, Shawano, who helped organize this year’s event, said that was a common sentiment she heard as she was planning the reunion.

One family member told Watters, “I’m too old not to go,” she said. Holding the reunion outside helped to alleviate some concerns, she said. She also brought hand sanitizer and optional masks for attendees.

Although a lot of attention went to the older attendees, Beardsley credited the next generation for keeping the reunion alive.

“The younger ones want to keep it going,” she said.

One of the “younger ones” is Victoria Tollefson, Manitowoc, who has been attending since she was a child. She said she comes every year, “just to see people’s faces and see how they are growing up.” The low-key event is stress-free and allows her to appreciate how faces change over the years but still keep the family resemblance.

She said she enjoys sharing the family’s history, hearing stories and keeping the connections alive.