Getting—and Keeping—the Family Together


Small families, large families, and medium-sized families can use the family organization idea.

When my older brothers started getting married and moving away, our family depended on special occasions to bring the eleven of us together at the same time. If everybody could come, great. If not, we would miss them, but we’d have fun anyway.

But during the summer of 1977, Dad felt we should start a formal family organization as his brothers, sisters, and parents had done. So he set a date and asked us all to bring our families.

The result was an organization that met our particular needs and stimulated our appreciation for each other.

For instance, shortly before the meeting I accidentally discovered, in the BYU library, a one-act play my mother had written in college. I decided that it would be a great contribution to the reunion since no one in the family knew it existed. (Mother had died seven years earlier.) At the meeting I presented to everyone a copy of the play and several other items I had collected. The family was as excited as I had been.

Then one of my brothers surprised us with copies of some old pictures he had found of Mother. And my sister added that she had made some tapes of our grandparents telling stories about Mother’s background and childhood.

Suddenly our family organization had a purpose: preparing Mother’s personal history. We promptly elected a family historian to coordinate the project. The history is coming along nicely; even aunts and uncles are contributing information.

But that wasn’t the only purpose our family organization discovered. Ways to meet family preparedness goals developed spontaneously when one sister-in-law mentioned that she had access to discount rates on food storage items. Another told us that she had started selling (in her home) wheat grinders, canners, juicers, and other home-production-and-storage items, and a recently married brother shared his bewilderment about what and how much he and his wife should be storing.

The result? We elected a family welfare representative to provide information on discount items and recommended storage items and make suggestions on preserving food.

Since then, she has expanded her responsibilities to include the other areas of personal and family preparedness. She sent a newsletter and a copy of the personal and family preparedness worksheet to each family. (These sheets can be ordered from Church distribution centers at no charge, stock no. PGWE1191.) The assignment was to start on goal no. 1 in each of the six areas: physical health, literacy and education, career development, social-emotional and spiritual strength, financial and resource management, and home production and storage. When each individual family reported progress on the first goal in each area, the whole family moved on to the second. Not only are we progressing, we’re progressing together.

Dad brought up the subject of family finances. He reminded us that the extended family is the second resource, after the individual, for financial help, and advocated setting up a system to help each other. At the time, several of us were struggling with school expenses, and others were beginning to buy a first home. All of us will eventually have children on missions. And of course, emergencies are unforeseeable. So we elected a family financial chairman and established policies on dues and paybacks.

One brother, a lawyer, taught us how to prepare a will and offered individual help as we wrote our own wills.

Of course our family organization meeting wouldn’t have been complete without genealogy. Dad encouraged all of us to write our personal histories. Then we elected our stepmother, a very proficient genealogist, as genealogical representative. She makes sure everyone receives birth, marriage, and death dates so that we can note them in our own records. And now that the Church has asked us to verify the accuracy of our four-generation group sheets as a family, she will direct that activity at our next meeting.

That’s how our family organization found its goals, and that’s the present state of our organization. It’s not as elaborate as some (see “When the Brimhalls Got Organized,” Ensign, Oct. 1976, pp. 11–15), and we haven’t yet implemented all of the possible ideas (see “Six Families Tell How and Why they Organized,” Ensign, Jan. 1977, pp. 36–39). But it’s just right for us now. It will change as we change.

After participating in the organization of our own family and after talking with several people about theirs, I have concluded that there are no rules you have to follow when getting organized. The Church has no definite format for family organizations. Families are just too different to all have the same kind of family organization. Some families are few in number; some have no relatives in the Church; others have been members for generations and have formed large ancestral family organizations consisting of thousands of descendants of a common ancestor.

But the size of the organization doesn’t matter. It’s the love, the fun, the sense of identity and of belonging that really count.

“We don’t have a formal family organization,” Diane L. Deputy told me. “I am a convert to the Church, and my husband is the only Mormon in his French-Jewish family. I have tried to encourage some kind of family organization through the years, but other family members have shown little interest. It has been discouraging.”

But Sister Deputy, of South Jordan, Utah, hasn’t given up. “Since our baptism, many of our nonmember relatives have been curiously interested in our genealogical progress. Some have even been inspired to share valuable family information and mementos with us.

“Also for the past couple of years I have felt almost driven to compile and record a number of life histories, as well as to encourage others to do so,” she said. “Recently I wrote a biography of my deceased father and sent it to members of my family. I included the account of my parents’ baptism and of Dad’s ordination to the priesthood. Most of them wrote back, thanking me enthusiastically for my efforts. Much of the information in the history was new to them, and they were happy to have it.”

Sister Deputy feels that nothing is impossible with the Lord, and she attributes her writing ability to a combination of prayer and perseverance. While sifting through personal and public records, she has felt inspired many times. Her documented histories include, when appropriate, many of these spiritual experiences, and these biographies are having an impact on other family members.

Sister Deputy has also written historical accounts of some of her husband’s Jewish progenitors. Despite a complete lack of interest in the Church from this branch of the family, these accounts have been received, “very favorably.” “This is my way of helping our family draw closer together—and of planting seeds for the future,” she says.

Carl D. Judkins of El Paso, Texas, also wanted to include his non-Mormon relatives in a family organization. Although his father seemed uninterested in the Church, Brother Judkins knew his father was the family patriarch anyway. After much fasting and prayer, he approached his dad with the idea of heading up a family organization, and in case of interest, had several suggestions ready about specific activities they could enjoy together.

“To my surprise,” said Brother Judkins, “he not only accepted the idea, but he also suggested, before I even mentioned them, the very ideas I had planned to suggest to him. At this time, I was overcome with the assurance that the Lord was inspiring my father to direct his family.”

Sandy Densley of Denver, Colorado, says they haven’t discussed genealogy yet at their family reunions with their nonmember relatives. Instead, when they get together once each year, they just have fun.

“We have talent shows and sports activities,” she said. “We even started a tradition of putting together a jigsaw puzzle as a group project at every reunion. We love just being together and becoming better friends.”

Keeping in touch with family members is also a major goal of large ancestral families in the Church.

But how do you stay in touch if there are 8,000 living members in your family?

The Jesse N. Smith Family Association has found an answer that works for them: The Kinsman. For thirty years, The Kinsman, a sixteen-page quarterly publication, has entered the homes of family members, bringing them biographical sketches of their ancestors, historical information about the family, articles on contemporary family members who are excelling in their fields, reports of family reunions, and notices of marriages, golden wedding anniversaries, births, and deaths. A complimentary subscription for one year is sent to each newlywed couple.

Family members often use The Kinsman as a source for family home evening stories. “It’s a thrill to teach my children faith through stories of their own progenitors,” said Bruce N. Smith of Orem, Utah.

The family has published two editions of the Journal of Jesse N. Smith and is now preparing a companion volume entitled The Family of Jesse N. Smith. It will include biographical sketches of members of the original family to keep alive the memory of progenitors and provide for family members a knowledge of their own roots. The new book will also contain an updated posterity list of the extended family. According to Oliver R. Smith, family editor, hundreds of family members worked for two years to compile the list.

That’s one function of their family organization—to keep the family close. Another is to further genealogical research. For years, family members have coordinated their efforts to locate and collect information about their ancestors. And Bess Rogers Ericksen, current family president, is thrilled about the recently announced Churchwide extraction program. “It’s a great boost to the family’s genealogy work,” she declares. The new indexes created by the extraction program will slash the time it takes to find names and information which otherwise could demand thousands of individual hours. As is their option, the family has decided to continue to link ancestral pedigrees together with the help of the extraction program. And members of the family are looking forward to the possibility of serving, if called, as genealogical missionaries in their stakes.

This family association also restores and maintains family historical sites. They own or contribute to the upkeep of two pioneer homes, one of which, the Jesse N. Smith Memorial Home in Snowflake, Arizona, is on the National Register of Historic Sites.

Their fourth goal is to promote family reunions. Reunion chairman, N. Pratt Smith of Bountiful, Utah, says that regional reunions are held yearly in Arizona, California, Utah, Idaho, Colorado, and Washington. The Smith Cousins Club, an official club on the Brigham Young University campus, holds its meetings twice a year at general conference time, attracting many conference-going cousins. Bruce N. Smith, its faculty advisor, pointed out that “many Smith second and third cousins have met through the club and have become long-lasting friends.”

Reunions usually consist of business meetings, lots of food, talent shows, and skits based on the lives of ancestors.

But beyond these large reunions, the family officers encourage individual families to organize themselves and to hold their own smaller reunions. “This is the big emphasis in the Church,” President Bess Ericksen told the family in a Kinsman editorial. “Let’s make it ours, too.”

There are three natural levels of family organizations, and an individual might belong to more than one. Immediate families, with the father as president or natural patriarch and the mother as partner and counselor to her husband, meet in weekly family home evenings and frequent family councils, creating an organization to meet the family’s particular needs. (The mother is head of the family if the father is not present.) Grandparent families, including the parents, their single and married children, and grandchildren, meet frequently for family reunions. Ancestral families, consisting of many descendants of a common direct ancestor, meet for occasional reunions.

Family organizations exist to serve as a resource for family responsibilities in genealogy, welfare, and missionary work: They help us compile our four-generation genealogy sheets, verify the accuracy of the information, promote the writing of personal and family histories, and encourage temple attendance. They help us keep track of each other so we can lend spiritual and temporal assistance when necessary. And they strengthen family ties and increase our love for living and deceased relatives.

Whatever your family circumstances, a family organization can work for you. If your family is large, you can have a large family organization—maybe several of them. If your family is small, you can have a small family organization. If your family doesn’t care to participate right now, you can think of creative ways to encourage them.

“All members should … participate in a family organization,” President Spencer W. Kimball has declared. (Ensign, May 1978, p. 4.) And underlining the fact that family organizations can give us a sense of who we are—a feeling of belonging—he has said: “It is important for us … to cultivate in our own family a sense that we belong together eternally, that whatever changes outside our home, there are fundamental aspects of our relationship which will never change. We ought to encourage our children to know their relatives. We need to talk of them, make effort to correspond with them, visit them, join family organizations, etc.” (Ensign, Nov. 1974, p. 112.)

Christine Ericksen, 20, of Snowflake, Arizona, sums up the sense of identity she gets from belonging to a family organization. “I like to get to know my own people,” she said. “I love them; they’re part of me.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Richard Hull