For as long as I can remember, and for generations and generations before me, each Fourth of July weekend the Vandivort family descendants have packed our bags and traveled to the tiny Missouri town of Cape Girardeau.
The Vandivort Family reunion started 60+ years ago, centered around the farm land owned and managed in this region. What started as a business endeavor was truly intended to keep the extended family linked, all related through the "siblings", my great grammy and her siblings, the foundation of our family.
I don't blame you if you've never heard of Cape- few people have. It sits 100 miles SE of St. Louis on the Mississippi River, with streets full of restored historic buildings, churches and homes. The image you probably have in your head of Small Town USA almost certainly fits the description- every chain restaurant imaginable, old established homes, gardens, beautiful stained glass church windows.
The brick buildings contain so many stories of love, laughter, and support in the hardest of times. When I am in Cape, I yearn to know my great grandparents and their parents, beyond the stories I have heard growing up.
This was the first year in recent memory where the annual family reunion didn't happen in Cape: with restaurant dinners, Jenga tournaments, and hospitality room hangouts replaced by Zoom. As we sat in front of our computer glancing over the familiar faces in tiny boxes on our screen, I was overcome with nostalgia for this place and these people.
Some of my earliest memories of my life took place in this tiny town, dancing with my cousin Emma, playing cards with aunts and uncles, indulging in unlimited soda from the hospitality room. I remember running around in the park on the Fourth of July, eating the traditional reunion Snoopy cake and trying to remember the names of so many people- so many Julias and Pauls!
Friends without close-knit extended families often widen their eyes in bewilderment when I tell them of our annual reunion in the Cape, and to be fair, not many can understand from the outside-looking-in what binds together a family of generations of people from all over, all occupations, all beliefs.
As I sit here and reminisce on all the summer weekends spent here in the 100 degree heat, I've come to realize the importance of a place, how it can stick with you like the air does on a humid summer day, even if you've never called that place "home".
Cape Girardeau is rich in history, and each year we visit Bollinger Mill, built and ran by my great ^5 grandmother, Sarah Bollinger. My grandmother has spent years researching and compiling information about the life and passions of Sarah, an incredible, forward-thinking woman who stood up for herself when few women were able to.
Reflecting on my family's roots and our traditions has taken on a new meaning as our country aches and cries out for racial justice and reconciliation. Every element of our country has been shaped by hundreds of years of oppression of Black and Indigenous lives, including the practice of tracing ancestry. The lack of accurate record-keeping during slavery and indentured servitude has made it impossible for most Black Americans to trace back their story. My heart aches as I reflect on the joy and fond memories that family tracing has allowed me that has been robbed of many.
As we move to push our nation in the right direction, as I have listened to the voices who have shared their stories and opened their hearts, this importance of place has stuck in my mind. The importance of a safe home. The importance of a community where your car, the grocery store, the park, the Wendy's parking lot, aren't a death sentence because of the color of your skin. As Black people in this country have been pushed out of their neighborhoods, their towns, their ability to grow old and to continue their family tree has far too often been ripped away at the hands of police. The importance of the lives of Breonna, Ahmaud, George, Tamir, Michael, Philando, Eric can be affirmed in our works to make this place we call home equitable and safe.
I can't reflect on the history of my family and the values they've passed down to me without examining my role, and my family's historic role, in upholding these systems. The importance of place refers to our nation, and every small town Main Street and big city Boulevard. The fight to make these places safe, accessible and welcoming to all must continue.
Resources for Racial Justice and Anti Racism: