Family Stories Mark a Family Reunion Commentator Desiree Cooper writes about her most recent family reunion. Her teenaged son was enthralled by family stories. Cooper is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

Family Stories Mark a Family Reunion

Family Stories Mark a Family Reunion

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Commentator Desiree Cooper writes about her most recent family reunion. Her teenaged son was enthralled by family stories. Cooper is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.


The Coopers of Sussex County, Virginia, take their family very seriously. They have an official family logo, a family scholarship fund and, of course, an annual reunion. As the Cooper family's official historian, commentator Desiree Cooper was obliged to attend the reunion this summer.


This year my 80-year-old Aunt Lillian stood before the 27th annual Cooper Family Reunion and told everyone that she hadn't wanted to come. `I don't know what it was,' she said in her gentle way. `I just couldn't get myself together.' We all looked at each other uncomfortably. Lillian is one of only three surviving siblings in my father's generation. She made us all think the unthinkable: Would she be alive to sit at the head table next year?

The Virginia Coopers are strong-willed, argumentative and unexpectedly generous. They were raised by a teeny woman, Annie, who could zing spittle into a spittoon four feet away. It was a miracle that five boys and eight girls sprang from her loins. She was like a glass bottle with a ship inside; you'd stare at her and wonder how all those children got out.

Their father, Roger, was a sharecropper who sold corn whiskey on the side to support the family he had to raise in an abandoned church. My Aunt Lillian was the first of 13 children to finish high school, but the segregated Sussex County Training School canceled the ceremony in 1944 because she was the only graduate. She was invited to join the procession in 1945, but by then she was apprenticing as a dressmaker in New York.

If it weren't for the family reunion, one of her grandnephews, now a schoolteacher, would never have heard that story. He decided two years ago that his Aunt Lillian would have her graduation. He contacted Sussex County High, and they gladly put Aunt Lillian on the roster. Last June she put on a cap and gown and got her high school diploma, making her the first and only of the Cooper siblings to graduate from an integrated high school.

That's the kind of thing that can happen when the young get a chance to listen and learn from the old. I watched my son, who is 17, sit in the middle of the room this year with the elders soaking up the stories. He was so engrossed, we started calling him the O.C., the Original Cooper. Before the reunion, he'd been talking about getting a tattoo. We discouraged him. We asked him how he'll explain a Snoop Dogg tattoo to the nurses at the nursing home when he's the one who's 80. But as he left the reunion this year, he declared that he decided on a tattoo. `I'm getting the family logo,' he declared. `Being a part of the family is permanent. It'll never go out of style.'

Aunt Lillian kept saying how tired she was this year, but maybe she wasn't talking about laying down her bones for good. Maybe she had the kind of fatigue that comes from holding things up for so long. But this year the sponsor of the reunion was my cousin, Raymar, who's only 19. I hope Aunt Lillian looked around this year and realized with relief that she's no longer the only one doing the lifting.

SIEGEL: Desiree Cooper is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press and the historian for the Cooper family of Sussex County, Virginia.


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