ESTES PARK, Colo. -- No one could have guessed the kids were practically strangers as they swapped goofy jokes only they could understand.
That they came from different parts of the country -- and entirely different ways of life -- amused rather than confused them. While one boy recounted his daily before-school chores on the dairy farm, the city slickers in the group talked about New York subways and California freeways. Another youngster was mesmerized by the mountains; he'd never seen any before.
The kids teamed up for volleyball, mini-golf tournaments, touch football, origami sessions and marathon UNO games. They played together as if they always had, as their parents had a generation before in Yoakum, the small Texas town south of San Antonio, where their grandparents lived and had raised seven children.
But almost everyone in the family -- there were 40 first cousins in that baby-boom generation -- lived in Texas back then. Reunions were a simple afternoon affair, swimming and a cookout, with plenty of home movies taken of kids making funny faces and dads smiling over the grill.
Today, this family, like most, is spread across the country and beyond, as those baby boomers, including my husband, grew up to become military officers and teachers, housewives and journalists, businessmen and secretaries, professors and artists. Some of the cousins who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s hadn't seen each other in more than 30 years.
They and their families live in California and Illinois, Kansas, Connecticut, Washington and, of course, Texas. They're Jews, agnostics, Catholics and followers of Eastern religions.
Understandably, their parents worried that the grandchildren were growing up with little understanding of their sprawling family and its Texas history. That's why they worked so hard for two years to gather everyone for a giant Yoakum reunion here at the YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center.
``I see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,'' said Mary McQuillen, one of my husband's aunts, as she watched the crowd, some hundred-strong, gather for a group photograph.
The new generation of cousins was just as enthusiastic.
``I never would have met half these people otherwise, and it's fun,'' said 14-year-old Jody Poole, one of the Texans in the group.
We ranged in age from 3 months to 78 and had come from as far as Italy. Why not gather in Texas? I'd asked. This YMCA center is much more centrally located, I was told. It's in a beautiful spot, at the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. No one would have to cook or clean, and it's affordable; the cost per day for a family of four, including most activities (like swimming, tennis and mini-golf) and two meals, typically averages $170, far less than any resort. (Don't expect gourmet meals or stellar accommodations, however.)
My in-laws also had talked up the place so much four years ago, after visiting with their six children, spouses and grandchildren, that the rest of the family was convinced it would be ideal for this much bigger party. (After all, the 860-acre place can sleep 4,000!)
Another plus: There's no staff better equipped to handle reunions; at 650 a year, more reunions take place here and at the YMCA's other Colorado property than anywhere else in the country. There's even an office to help organize special family activities like campfires, hikes and relay races. (We were too busy with our own doings to need their help.)
The week in July we gathered, the reunion office was plenty busy, with 20 reunions. Some were small, just 30 or so people, while others were larger than ours. You couldn't miss them in the dining hall, on the basketball court, bike paths and craft shop, or waiting to get their photos taken. Like us, they were sporting reunion T-shirts. (Ours had a map of Texas on the back, overlaid with a family tree; on the front ``Granny and Poppy, look what you've done!'' referring to the grandparents who had died three decades before.) And the next generation of grandparents couldn't seem to stop smiling at the sight of everyone together.
``The older generation thinks this is very important,'' said Dave Thomas, a spokesman for the YMCA of the Rockies, which has been hosting family groups for the past 90 years. ``We have families who haven't gotten along, and one of the reasons they're doing this is to bring everyone together,'' he added.
Thomas noted that the numbers of reunions appear to be increasing. ``We already have requests for the year 2020,'' he said. (Plan two years ahead for the YMCA of the Rockies. Call 800-777-YMCA.)
So once we got there, what did we do? We went off in different directions, catching up on family news all the while. One day, 23 of us, including 11 kids, hiked to a mountain lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. Early another morning, an equally large group headed off for a white-water rafting trip on the Colorado River. There were plenty of water fights along the way.
We roasted one great-aunt on her 60th birthday and my husband's younger brother on his 40th. We gathered at a tiny stone-and-log church for a memorial service.
There were shaving-cream fights and late-night bull sessions. After dinner one evening, we watched a video painstakingly compiled by my father-in-law and sister-in-law from old photographs and family movies. They'd made sure everyone at the reunion was in at least one frame, and many of the adults were teary-eyed by the time it was over.
The older kids, meanwhile, sat mesmerized by visions of their parents as children and their grandparents as young adults. That jaunty young soldier, was that really Grandpa? my 13-year-old son asked.
By the time we left, the reunion had accomplished what the grandparents had hoped: We'd all reconnected with the family. The kids already are talking about the next reunion, tentatively dubbed: ``2001: A Yoakum Odyssey.''
(Please send stories of your own family reunions for use in an upcoming column. Send them to ``Taking the Kids,'' Los Angeles Times Syndicate, 218 S. Spring Street, Los Angeles, CA 90053; or e-mail them to email@example.com.)
(c) 1997, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate