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It wasn't so long ago that the family gathering was a regular ritual. Mom, Dad and kids sat together evenings for dinner. Cousins, aunts and uncles joined at holidays, sharing jokes and arguments. Long, languid summers were spent with grandparents.

These days, it may seem the only time your entire family gets together is for a wedding or funeral. You live in different parts of the country. Your schedules are hectic. Your parents are divorced and family relations are strained.The solution some 200,000 American families try each year: a family reunion.

The holidays, when many family members talk to or see one another anyway, is a good time to lay the groundwork for a future reunion.

Planning is crucial. Given busy schedules and the distances involved, you'll want six months to a year to put your plan in action.

But to create an experience that is truly meaningful, you'll need to address more than just the time, place and logistics. Every family has its share of strains and conflicts. Being honest about them - and the personalities involved - will help you create a happy, memorable experience.

Here are some points you will want to consider:

- How big should your reunion be?

Gathering grown cousins with families of their own is likely to require more effort than just parents, brothers, sisters and children. So remember that the more people involved, the longer in advance you'll want to start. This allows time to coordinate vacation schedules, look for low air fares, etc.

- Who makes the decisions?

Government by committee isn't always effective; however, everyone needs to feel consulted.

In some families, the elders rule in a kind of oligarchy. In others, a coordinator is appointed and everyone votes on locations, or responsibilities and sites are rotated from year to year.

- What does "family" mean to your clan?

Divorce, remarriage and live-in arrangements need to be addressed. Do you include stepchildren from a previous marriage? Ex-spouses? Unmarried significant others who expect to share a bed? Long-time family friends?

Whatever your guidelines, you want it to be agreeable and clear to everyone. The last thing you need is a family member who refuses to come at the last minute because his live-in girlfriend isn't invited.

- How long should your reunion be?

"Fish and family both start to stink after three days," laughs Marlene Schneider-Potter, a family therapist and director of the Coconut Grove Center. But her point is serious: If your family is one where nerves start to fray after a few days, you may want to limit your reunion to a long weekend. Ditto if most members tend to live on tight schedules.

- What kind of accommodations will you need?

No surprise - that depends on the scale of your reunion. Here's some tips for when it gets complicated:

My own family goes in for the full-scale reunion, and at times we've had 80-plus Wooldridge aunts, uncles and cousins gathered for a week-long bash.

When many small children were involved, we took several adjacent beach cottages. Each of the four members of the senior generation took a house for his or her decendants. Some needed two houses, such as my father, who rented a cottage for my stepmother's four grown children and their little ones, and a second cottage for my siblings and their gremlins.

As the family has aged, we've turned to condos. Because they are smaller, they allow a bit more privacy for individual families. For events involving everyone, we booked the condo's clubhouse.

- How should you pay for it?

In our case, the older generation pays for the accommodations - the cottages or condos. The rest of us pay for meals, groceries, etc.

Other families take turns hosting the event. Others share costs equally.

Whatever the arrangement, the idea is to avoid undue financial strain. Nobody wants to carry more than their fair share, but some family members do have more resources than others. Be sure to work things out in advance to avoid embarassment or anger at the reunion.

- Who will do what? This is another area where talking things out in advance can make all the difference between harmony and war.

Attitude is a key to a successful reunion. Here's how to prepare:

- Talk to children about the event and who will be there. "One of the things that scares the children is that they won't remember who someone is," says Nova Family Center's Segal. She suggests going through a family album with children and explaining who all the people are.

- Adjust your expectations. "People have fantasy pictures of how the reunion should be," says Schneider-Potter. "They think, `I'm going to see my Uncle Tom and tell him everything I wanted to tell him."' That kind of intimate connecting probably won't happen at a reunion - and probably will go better at a more private time. Nor will hypercritical Uncle Tom suddenly turn into your biggest fan.

- Don't insist on perfection. If you're worried about whether your house looks perfect or what the relatives will think if you serve on paper plates instead of china, you probably won't enjoy the reunion much. The more relaxed the arrangements, the better off you'll be.

- Pack your sense of humor. You may need it.

- Create a family feeling.

Reunion T-shirts, commemorative items, a list of phone numbers and addresses of all participants help make everyone feel they belong.

- Plan enough activities.

"If people sit around with nothing to do they can get into a lot of negative stuff," says Schneider-Potter. "Families build bonds not necessarily tied to words."

- Pay special attention to children. Problems occur, says Segal,, when one child is too young or too old for the others. Help that child find a special task, such as taking care of a younger child, or hook her up with an older cousin.

And don't let kids stay up too late, she advises. Already they're sleeping in strange beds and eating unfamiliar foods. If they don't get enough rest, they're likely to get wild - and there goes everyone's serenity.

- Locate emergency services as soon as you arrive. At our first reunion, the kids ran afoul of basketballs, stairs and jellyfish, and we made four trips to the emergency room the first day.

- Bring - and take - plenty of photos. A reunion is about history, after all.

- Be sensitive. Given the modern divorce rate, it's quite possible that the wife at Reunion No. 1 may have changed by Reunion No. 2. So it really wouldn't be a good idea to plaster the first wife's photos all over the family photo collage. On the other hand, you can't exactly cut her head out of the group photo. Think and ask before you speak or act.

- Keep your attitude easy. With a little extra stress, it won't take long for family members to revert to their worst sibling rivalries. If conflicts arise, try to listen without getting defensive. Make a date to discuss the problem when you're both calm. You can't ignore issues, but you needn't drag the entire family into every personal argument.

Cost containment

- Remember that there's buying power in numbers.

If you're renting cottages, condos, hotel rooms or cruise cabins, you should be able to negotiate for a group discount. Don't be shy about asking.

The same may apply to air fares. If 10 or more family members are flying from the same destination, United offers fare discounts. Delta offers fare discounts if 10 or more are going to the same destination even if they're not starting out from the same place. Other airlines have them too; it pays to ask.

For group fares, call (800) 241-6108 at Delta; (800) 426-1122 at United. For other airlines, call the reservations number and ask for the group fares desk.

- Ask about amenities. Some resorts or cruise lines offer special amenities for groups at no extra charge.

For instance, for a minimum of eight persons, Regency Cruise Lines provides a family reunion package that includes a complimentary champagne party, a souvenir group photo and a personalized reunion cake. Advance notice is required. Information: Regency Cruises, 360 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016; (800) 388-5500.


- The Family Reunion Institute at Temple University in Philadelphia will hold its next conference in 1996. Information: Dr. Ione Vargas, (215) 204-6244.

- Reunion Research in San Francisco sells "The Family Reunion Handbook," by Tom Ninkovich, for $14.95 plus $2 shipping, and "Recreational Ideas for Family Reunions" by Adrienne Anderson, for $11.95 plus $2 shipping. For information, write Reunion Research, 3145 Geary Blvd., Box 14, San Francisco, Calif. 94118; (209) 855-2101.

- Reunions Magazine, aimed at family, school and military reunions, is published five times a year and costs $12 for the first year. For information, write Reunions Magazine, P.O. Box 11727, Milwaukee, Wis. 53211; (414) 263-4567.