73 family reunions and counting

For hours on Sunday, the old gravel road to the Claude Spriggs homestead in Suwanee crackled with traffic as one descendant after the other made his way home.

It has been this way since 1942, when family members gathered to celebrate Spriggs’ birthday and a reprieve handed him from the military draft. As the Army saw it, the Gwinnett County farmer was more valuable at home.

His brother Samuel Eldo Spriggs wasn’t so lucky.

As he headed to fight in the war that November, the rest of the Spriggs clan — children of Mary Catherine and Samuel Alexander Spriggs — gathered again in August 1943 for the birthday dinner.

No one ever thought that get-together during such troubled times in American history would become the Spriggs’ family reunion, but after years of birthday parties on the fourth Sunday in August, the change occurred.

No one knows the precise moment. It just happened.

And so like clockwork, without any prodding or the months of planning that often go into today’s version of the family reunion, they come. From Texas. From Alabama and Florida. From the North Georgia mountains. From around the corner and down the road.

They come with new wives and husbands or babies to introduce. They come with two or three of their favorite casserole dishes, desserts and pots brimming with fresh, hot vegetables plucked from the family garden to share.

Last Sunday didn’t look all that different from the last, oh, 72 reunions. They still gathered under the old oak tree in Claude’s front yard, where long tables had been set up to hold the coveted dishes and their most nagging questions could finally be answered.

What had everybody been up to? Who’d traveled the farthest? Do you remember when …?

It used to be, Jean Spriggs Ousley said, that they bounced between here and her Uncle Claude’s sister, Susie Cain’s, place.

But when Susie died in 1988, Claude inherited the annual gathering once more. Then in 1996, he died.

“The coolest thing is Uncle Claude’s daughters, Claudette, Barbara Joyce and Hilda, and son, C.H., kept it going,” Ousley said. “And now his granddaughter, Emily Watkins, has taken it over. I think it’s amazing that they want the tradition to continue.”

Watkins not only inherited the reunion, she inherited Uncle Claude’s old house, where she has lived with her husband and two sons since 2007.

That sort of just happened, too. Emily had grown up next door to her grandfather, but after her grandmother’s death in 1985, she moved in so Claude wouldn’t be alone.

“I didn’t plan on staying here,” she said.

Then her father C.H. Spriggs and Claude’s only son suddenly passed away in 2006 and, well, her plans changed.

She and her husband, Tony, decided to stay put and spruce up the old family homestead a bit with paint, central air conditioning and new pine floors.

With that, the reunions would continue right where they started under that old oak tree.

And so there they were on Sunday, Emily and family, Jean Spriggs Ousley and her husband, Tom, all the Spriggs and Cain cousins, the Heltons, the Braswells, the Mitchells and all the others, just like in the old days. No fees. No T-shirts. Just family getting reacquainted and having a good time.

The only thing that’s changed, Emily said, is they’re more inclined to use social media to send out a teeny reminder that the fourth Sunday is drawing near. Of course, everybody who’s a Spriggs, including those who’ve married into the family, knows what that means.

Bring your lawn chairs. Bring your favorite dishes. Bring your memories, even if you’re the only one who remembers.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why the tradition has lasted so long. Uncle Claude and his siblings weren’t well-educated, but family was important to them. That’s what everybody loved about Uncle Claude. That and those homespun sayings of his.

And so it was sometime around noon on Sunday, about the time everyone was out of church, Spriggs Road started to crackle under the family’s weight.

Ousley was among the first to arrive and one of the last to leave. She had a good time, she said. Emily, too.

Each year brings back memories of times past, of family no longer with them, Ousley said. It’s why she keeps coming back.

“For me it’s totally about the memories, the throwback to the way we were,” Ousley said. “It was red clay, mud puddles and chicken houses, but those were the roots, the times that made us all.”

Memories.

They missed Uncle Claude and all the others who are gone now, but they’re sure they would’ve been proud. Proud of the way family has remained at the center of their lives. And most assuredly proud of how Claude’s birthday party turned reunion has endured all these years.

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