Floating down the Comal River in New Braunfels, Texas (pop. 36,494), three generations of the Zubik family chat, tease and giggle while dangling their arms and legs over inflated rubber inner tubes and splashing in the clear, chilly water under the shade of towering cypress and pecan trees.
As they reach the end of their first river run of the day, two dozen family members climb the bank toward a pile of towels, then lug their tubes to hillside rental cabins for a make-your-own lunch of sandwiches, chips and cold drinks while recalling their latest water adventure.
"I go fast," says Tyler Zubik, 3, of Sugar Land, Texas, the only first-timer on this year's annual family floata rite of passage that extends 71 years and across four generations.
"The rapids were fun," adds Tyler's cousin Zoe Zubik, 14, of Hurst, Texas.
Welcome to the Zubik family reunion, a tradition that began in 1938 when Jack and Anne Zubik honeymooned in the Hill Country of central Texas before making their home in Bryan (pop. 65,660) in southeast Texas. They liked the tranquil getaway spot so muchwith its meandering spring-fed rivers and the quaint German community of New Braunfelsthat they returned each year, bringing their growing brood with them.
At first, the annual pilgrimage served as a quick and affordable vacation for Jack and Anne, who worked as a tailor and a homemaker, and their four childrenGerald, James, Dan and Alisa. Eventually, the gathering transitioned into a Friday-to-Sunday family reunion with 13 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren joining them from Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Since 1940, the Zubiks have stayed at the Other Place Resort, a rustic riverside retreat without TVs or telephones and featuring a playground, sandbox, volleyball net, horseshoe pits, picnic tables and, of course, the Comal River. Each year, they rent two cabins, including the Zubik House, named after the family in 2000 for their six decades of loyal patronage.
"It's very low-key. It's nice just to sit out under the trees and enjoy family and eat barbecue and float down the river," says Dan Zubik, 61, of Sugar Land, the third child of Jack and Anne.
Although Jack died last year at the age of 91about 12 years after the death of his wife and four years since his oldest son passedthe family still reserves the cabins in Jack's name the third weekend of each May.
"We do that as a tribute to him for starting all of this," says James Zubik, 65, of Bryan, and the oldest living family member. "My father was a family man. He believed in family."
In an age of occupational mobility and hectic schedules, such gatherings are more important than ever to help parents, children, aunts and uncles stay connectedand to pass the family heritage from one generation to the next, says Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions Magazine.
"There was a time when your cousins lived down the street and grandma lived around the corner and everyone showed up at noon on Sundays for family dinner and family stories," Wagner says. "But today, not many families have a relative living a block away, and grandma may very well have moved to Florida or Arizona. People really have to make the effort to get together, and the family reunion is one way."
Most reunions are celebrated on three-day weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day, with the week around July 4th as the peak gathering time. The average event draws about 50 people, and frequently is hosted at a hotel, resort or retreat facility.
"Many reunions get launched at a family member's funeral when someone will say, 'We've got to meet under happier circumstances,'" Wagner says. "At times like that, people sense the need to get together more."
While organizing a reunion can be time-consuming, Wagner says the most successful ones are planned at least a year in advance and include activities that help relatives interact, keep children and young people engaged and entertained, and provide some leisure time for all. "Family cliques can be a problem, so you want ways to build relationships across those lines and help people to connect face to face. That's where the thought and organization comes in," she says.
For the Zubik family, the Comal River is the tie that binds, and the chief planner is tradition.
"Kids and water just go together," says James, who has two grandsons, Justin, 11, and David, 7. "All these years later, the children are enjoying pretty much the same fun as I didrunning and playing in the park, experiencing the river. We're pretty much in and out of the river all day long."
The Zubik family has 48 members, and about 35 attend each reunion.
"Whoever can make it just shows up and brings food for their family," Dan says. "We tried organizing it one time, and it got to be so much work that it took the fun out of it. So we focus mainly on the family and visiting with each other. That way, we see each other at least once a year, and the cousins and nephews and nieces get to know each other. These days, people don't know their own families, much less their neighbors."
The Zubik reunion also has helped family members appreciate their Czechoslovakian ancestry, says Cassandra Hedgpeth, 41, of San Antonio, Texas, and the youngest of Gerald's three children. "For breakfast, we eat sausage and bacon and homemade kolaches (pastries). We like to drink beer," she adds with a laugh. "If it weren't for this reunion, I know we'd lose touch."
Her cousin agrees. "Relationships are built on experiences, not just seeing someone at Thanksgiving and Christmas, which tend to be dominated by a theme," says Jason Zubik, 34, Dan's son from Austin. "The only theme for our reunion is family. We just relax and enjoy each other.
"Hopefully, the Zubik reunion is like the river. It will just keep flowing," he says.