Sometimes it's called the Cousin's Club, sometimes the Ratner Family Meeting. But it's never just called a "reunion." No, for my extended family the annual summer get-together of long-lost relatives is always called something more officious and businesslike. You'd think someone had a gavel and planned on using Robert's Rules to keep order. Or that we'd be devising some illicit plan for trafficking in bagels and lox, Kosher Nostra-style. To be honest, our family "meetings" can resemble something straight out of The Godfather with my strong-of-will (and weak-of-hearing) 97-year-old Nana serving as Don (Donna?), making "offers we can't refuse" in the form of stale Nips candy and highly romanticized stories of her youth.
I've always made the trek back East to be a part of these meetings - the wrath of Nana is never worth skipping a major family function. But I have to say, traveling is starting to get a little old, especially with so much of my immediate family in the Midwest now. Perhaps it's time to break family tradition and start a westward movement - the next family meeting in America's Dairyland. If nothing else, the cream cheese for our bagels should be a lot fresher.
And there are so many places in and around Madison that would offer a delightfully welcome break from the basement of Nana's Independent Living Community.
Overlooking the mighty Mississippi
Wisconsin is filled to the brim with natural beauty, and nowhere is this on more perfect display than at Wyalusing State Park, located about two hours southwest of Madison off Highway 18. Sitting pretty at 500 feet above the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, this location offers just about everything an extended family could look for in recreational activities, including Native American effigy mounds, canoe trails and bird watching. And for those clans that want to make a weekend out of it, Wyalusing offers campsites galore.
But even if you're not a fan of the sleeping bag, like Nana (and me), Wyalusing is happily home to the Hugh Harper dormitory, which is reservable for indoor group camping. So roughin' it can be limited to sharing a room and bunk beds. I promise not to make Nana take the top bunk.
Reservations for the Indoor Group Camp are accepted through the mail or in person up to one year in advance. Four dorms house up to 27 people each. Each has bathrooms and heat (but no A/C). A kitchen equipped with utensils and cookware is available in the main lodge. Pretty much everything else is BYO - bedding, beverages, food.
13081 State Park Lane
Bagley, WI 53801
Nature and a skyline close to home
For those who want to stay a bit closer to home, but still enjoy scenic beauty, this fabulous facility has your family's name written all over it. Lake Farm County Park is located just seven minutes by car from downtown Madison, but it's just as easy to pedal there if you can. The park sits on the Capital City bicycle trail, which hooks up to the Military Ridge trail if you want to head out farther.
"This land used to be a working farm, and it's on beautiful Lake Waubesa," says Linda Mittnacht, manager and event planner for the Lussier Family Heritage Center. "We've hosted lots of events, and the center is a great place to experience some of the best of Dane County." With a walkout patio that leads right to nature trails and a wrap-around deck on the main level that overlooks the city skyline, this would be an ideal spot to show off my adopted city to visiting family.
Lake Farm County Park
3101 Lake Farm Rd.
Madison, WI 53711
A family reunion is not just the opportunity to visit with the living, but also the chance to honor generations past. And pretty much no matter where your ancestors may have hailed from, you can pay tribute to them at Old World Wisconsin - the tremendous living history museum in Eagle, just an hour and half away.
From the working German Schottler Farm, to the Czech shoemaker, to the African American United Brethren Church, this ode to early rural life in Wisconsin is sure to provide inspiration for a great get-together. Take the day to explore the 600-acre grounds and exhibits.
And when it's time to eat, your brood can dine comfortably in the air-conditioned Clausing Barn restaurant, which seats up to 70. Or even better, if your tribe originates from Oslo (or was very prolific), you can rent the sheltered Norwegian Picnic Pavilion, which has room for up to 400 guests.
Robert Parker, Old World's assistant director, confirms that "lots of clans get together regularly here to experience their history together."
W372 S9727 Hwy 67,
PO Box 69
Eagle, WI 53119
Right in the neighborhood
The Goodman Community Center has undergone some major changes over the past few years, and its new award-winning east-side building would be a warm and wonderful place to host a family get-together. The new facility has "several rooms that can accommodate anywhere from 30 to 170 people," says Kristi Kading, the center's facility use assistant, "and we love doing events of all sizes here."
The center also has unique features like a service kitchen that can be rented for food preparation, as well as in-house culinary geniuses, Working Class Catering. Featuring fresh-minded menus and employing local teens as kitchen staff and servers, Working Class can take the burden of feeding the masses off Aunt Arlene. And even if your family prefers to go potluck, which is welcomed here, the center can help out with beverages or an artful dessert.
With a state-of-the-art playground, a skate park and outdoor basketball court, there is plenty here to keep even the most active broods entertained.
149 Waubesa St.
Madison, WI 53704
Ready for your close-up?
My kids still can't believe that Grandma once sported cat eye glasses and a frosted Mary Tyler Moore flip. Or that Granddad ever rode a camel. But Kodachrome doesn't lie, and planning an event around the screening of family memories is an original idea for a reunion.
Fortunately, the theater and event space at the Orpheum Theatre on State Street is rentable for just such an occasion. Seeing your family's name displayed proudly on the venue's stunning marquee seems reason enough to consider the theater. But with great catering options, a fabulous French renaissance revival interior and your family flicks (transferred to DVD, of course) up on the big screen, the Orpheum makes an excellent option for your reunion "world premiere."
216 State St.
Madison, WI 53703
The Dells experience
If you are looking for the mother of all reunion locations, look no further than the Wisconsin Dells. Sure, it's "The Waterpark Capital of the World," but there is a lot more to the Dells experience. If you have kids in the party, consider staying at one of the big hotels, which have an almost infinite combination of suite configurations and condo rental options. You will not run out of activities. And it'll feel like the Lake Delton version of one of those all-inclusive Caribbean Resorts.
But should you want to venture out, there is plenty to do in the area. Uncle Harvey may enjoy a sunset dinner cruise on the clipper Winnebago, or a Lost Canyon Tour where a horse-drawn carriage pulls the family through a magnificent mile of cliff-walled gorges. And bird-watching Cousin Bennie might like a side trip to the International Crane Foundation's wetlands to witness these beautiful birds dance and call.
And if and when all the family togetherness finally gets to you, you can hightail it over to the Rick Wilcox Magic Theater and see if he can make everyone disappear.
701 Superior St., PO Box 390
Wisconsin Dells, WI 53965