By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post
The late Hessie and Jim Stephenson, a West Tennessee farming couple who raised 10 young ’uns, were laid to their eternal rest years ago, but they are not forgotten.
The offspring of the late Hessie and Jim Stephenson gather every summer for a week-long family reunion at Cedars of Lebanon State Park. They marked their 40th annual rendezvous as they camped in the park’s group lodge.
KEN BECK / The Wilson PostTheir surviving children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren gather every year for a week-long family reunion. Most of the gatherings are held at the Cedars of Lebanon State Park, and this past week marked their 40th annual rendezvous.
It began with a one-day event in 1969, but in 1970 they decided to make it a week. The Stephenson’s oldest grandchild (they had 26), Linda Montgomery of Louisville, Ky., has made every reunion since the second one.
“In 1970, we weren’t as organized. We’ve got it down to fine art now,” she said. “There were so many of us, there was no way my grandmother could see all of the family at the same time. We tried to come to her house and couldn’t all fit.”
Paul Stephenson, Hessie and Jim’s son, organized the first reunion back when his mother was still living.
“She got to sit and hold all the grandbabies and great-grandbabies, and the brothers and sister talked about the old days, working in the fields with mules in Rutherford, Tenn. My grandfather ran a truck farm and raised all kinds of vegetables and things: okra, corn, watermelon, cotton,” Montgomery said over the phone last week, while shopping at a Lebanon grocery store.
“I think the best part of it is all the cousins know each other: second, third, fourth and fifth cousins. The children can’t wait to see their great-uncle Paul and get excited to see each other like they never parted. It’s just fantastic. I’m here with my six grandchildren. We just have a good time and a lot of good food. It’s sort of an FFA camp arrangement with the men on one side and the women on the other,” she said of their stay at the park’s group lodge.
“The facilities are what we need. They are difficult to find. We met at Chickasaw State Park a few times, but we couldn’t all fit in the group lodge. The cost is better here. It’s rustic. We rough it. It is air-conditioned, and we don’t sit outside much on days like this.”
Montgomery’s daughter-in-law, Romona Parsons of Robbinsville, N.C., states the obvious, that Lebanon’s state park works well because it is the midpoint for the 60 to 80 family members who travel from across Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and Mississippi.
Romona and husband Brian’s son, Jackson, age 10 months, is the youngest member at the reunion.
“We’re such a big family, but this has been a great place to meet,” Romona said. “We’ve been other places but they only had small, little cabins. We always find stuff to do here. Today a group is going to Nashville Shores and a group is going to the zoo and Opry Mills.”
Besides hiking in the park, the family enjoys shopping at the Prime Outlets-Lebanon Mall, going to movies at The Roxy and getting wet at the children’s pool at Don Fox Park.
“We play cards all night long, Rook or shanghai,” Romona said. “They last forever. We constantly have crafts going on. We do tie-dye T-shirts every year at the lodge.”
The main event is Saturday lunch, when the congregation hits its peak. Oldest in attendance is Lorene Matthews, 83, who splits homes between Louisville, Ky., and Tupelo, Miss., where two of her sisters, Mattie and Bettie, live.
“We’re very close,” Matthews said of the tight-knit family. “We’ve never had a disagreement, which is remarkable. All these little girls are my great-grandnieces, but they are just like my grandchildren because I didn’t have any children. This is all about just being with the family, seeing the children grow up, and how they all love each other.”
And that’s exactly what family reunions should be all about. Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.