Resurrecting a family after tragedy
Out of tragedy, something profoundly good can occur.
No one knows that better than the McGrath family, separated at a young age after the deaths of their parents only five months apart but now nearing 45 years of celebrating family reunions, the latest of which brought more than 50 people to Ocean Beach Park in New London last weekend for a raucous Christmas party.
"Our parents died in 1961," said Mary Baldi, one of the McGrath clan who gathered in the park's Nautilus room.
Despite the shock of losing her parents at such a young age, added sister Maureen Gressler of Niantic, "God has been awfully good to our family."
First their mom, the former Margaret Pero, died at 43 of cancer, leaving five children, the youngest, George, about 10. Then dad Harold, who worked in manufacturing, suffered a massive heart attack a week before Christmas.
"We got split up," Mary, of New London, said. "We grew up separately."
Mary, Maureen and George wound up with an aunt, the late Mary Auld, in New London, while the two oldest brothers, John and Paul, by then young adults, went off on their own. They always vowed to stay in touch, no matter what, but still in an age without Facebook, keeping up with one another proved difficult, and there was a lull in communication as, one after another, they graduated from school, got married and had children of their own.
The family home in Portland may have by now been a distant memory, but Mary and sister Maureen decided in the summer of 1973, 12 years after their parents' deaths, to organize the first family reunion at Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford. People had so much fun they soon began to arrange holiday parties as well, at such places at Cherrystones restaurant, Lighthouse Inn and The Gelston House before finally settling on Ocean Beach, where they have been for more than two decades.
"We love Ocean Beach," Mary said.
In fact, one of the family's long-time servers, Mary Ann "Bunty" Beckloff, is included the celebration now that she has left the staff after more than two decades.
"It's such a beautiful family," she smiled. "You'll never meet nicer people."
The evening always goes predictably: social hour from 3 to 4 p.m., when family members catch up on everyone's latest news; dinner at 4 p.m., followed by an entertainment hour that includes singing, music and jokes.
"We're a very musical family," said Maureen, who herself has been a member of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Chorus for 37 years.
The evening concludes with with all the kids — identified in the McGrath family as anyone not yet married — sitting in Santa's lap to receive a little present. This year, a magician performed.
"Mary and I know all the ages, we shop all the sales and get all the bargains," Maureen said. "We love doing it."
All the ladies get a favor as well, and the evening includes a Chinese auction and gifts for the three brothers, George, John and Paul (though Paul didn't feel well enough to attend last weekend's event). The five siblings are separated in age by about 10 years.
For the McGraths, this is the Christmas they all look forward to every year, the first Saturday in December. It's also a reminder that family is special, and that each day is precious.
"We have to cherish every day because you just don't know," Maureen said. "Family is the most important thing in the world — and friends."
"I feel like I have the best family in the whole world," added Mary.
Everyone agrees Mary and Maureen are the pillars behind the family reunions, but their mom Margaret set the tone while she was alive.
"She was just a loving and wonderful person who believed in family," Maureen said. "We may have been separated by distance, but we were never separated with our hearts."
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