It all started innocently enough when a friend of the Lackners invited them to take a week he had rented at a resort up north. The Lackners agreed to the offer, not figuring at the time that this one week would become a family tradition lasting more than 47 years.
The Lackner posse's annual end of July pilgrimage to Hyde-A-Way Bay Resort on Birch Lake in Hackensack, Minn., eventually attracted two other Twin Cities families who also made a week at the lake a traditional part of their lives. All told, the Lackner, Green and Roberts families fill the 16-cabin resort with 30 to 40 family members each, from grandkids and their spouses and friends to siblings and their parents.
"The experience is about bonding together as a family," said 80-year-old Marvella Lackner of Maplewood. "It brings us together and we do everything we can that week together, from playing games to fixing meals."
For many families, going to the lake usually involves mostly immediate family -- parents, kids, maybe a grandparent or two or a couple of the kids' friends. But the trend in multi-generational family gatherings seems to have grown over the past decade as resorts have built special reunion cabin retreats, said Neil Johnson, Hibbing-based author of the upcoming book "Resorts of Minnesota." "One of the things resorts have done over the last five years is they've built these larger cabins of 6,000 square feet that sleep as many as 40 people, in part for these large family gatherings, " he said.
The week at the lake is a rare opportunity for widely-scattered families to bond with one another. Few things enrich the lives of older adults more than being with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and a week at a lake resort or large rental cabin offers a perfect setting for that.
Wealthier grandparents sometimes will foot the bill to ensure attendance and atone for missed family vacations, Johnson said. "I think it's that 'cat's-in-the-cradle' syndrome where maybe they think they missed out on some time with their kids, so they now want to pull all the family's generations together" for annual gatherings, he said.
Family reunions involve traditions that have developed over the years. In the Lackner family, the six siblings each take responsibility for one evening meal -- no small task when you're cooking for as many as 40 people, said Barb Pauling, Marvella's 55-year-old daughter, who lives in Hugo, Minn.
Richard "Red" Roberts of St. Paul, whose family has joined the Lackners every year since the early 1970s, said he and his four children happily organized many games involving friendly competition between the families, including softball, volleyball and whiffle ball. Then there are the usual lake activities, from swimming to canoeing and water skiing, said Roberts, 81. At night the tempo changes to bonfires, a luau and trips to the lodge for a libation. The Lackners once had legendary matches of "butt quarters" -- a game better left unexplained to the uninitiated -- at which Marvella demonstrated admirable prowess.
An annual vacation also provides a setting for absorbing life's lessons, Roberts said. "I always felt some satisfaction in seeing the kids getting along with one another and working together. There's a lot of give-and-take at the lake, the kids learned you've got to share, you can't go your own way."
The other lesson is that future gatherings will become the responsibility of another generation. After all, two Lackner family members got engaged at Hyde-A-Way Bay. "Its like passing the torch, and I had it passed to me," said Pauling. "Now I'll be passing the torch to my kids."
Frank Jossi is a St. Paul-based freelance writer.