www.doniphan.org/ Doniphan, a southern Missouri town with a population of 1,781, on the banks of the beautiful Current River, which winds through the foothills of the Missouri Ozarks. When I clicked on this website, I learned that Doniphan is also the “land of legend and romance.” During my childhood, it was just the place where my grandparents lived – along with three uncles, many cousins, a horse and a dog – and where our family visited a couple times a year. It was the Mecca of Mitchenerdom.
Consequently, for 55 years Doniphan has been the official site of the Mitchener family reunion, held every two years.
My childhood memories of Doniphan are a collage of images: fried catfish, butterflies, corn sticks, the local cemetery, biscuits & gravy, and swimming in the river. It was a place that made me think the Mitcheners were somehow different from other families. Mostly in a good way.
The truth is our family’s not that different. We just think no other family has a legendary grandpa who was a self-ordained revivalist preacher who had lady friends in several counties where he travelled to preach the Gospel. (Appropriately, one of these lady friends was named Sister Lively. There’s the legend and the romance.) And identical twin uncles, named Warner and Warren, who told stories about fooling their dates when they were young.
Those stories have become part of the reunion ritual. There are other recurring themes. For example, it’s always held in late July, the hottest time of year in one of the hottest spots on the planet Earth. We all stay at the only motel in town, which has a gazebo, a swimming pool, air conditioners, and a not-very-prolific ice machine. Mitcheners pretty much take over the gazebo both nights we’re there, and there’s usually a nickel-and-dime poker game ready to start up. One evening is at the Doniphan VFW for dinner and karaoke, with a lot of Patsy Cline songs.
All of the above are reasons why I’ve always looked forward to Doniphan. But things are different now, at least for me. I’ve become ambivalent, even somewhat reluctant, about attending. This summer was my first time in six years.
One attraction when I was young was that it was so different from St. Louis. My cousins called us city slickers, and they were country cousins. We didn’t own a horse; they did. They didn’t have sky scrapers; we did. We didn’t have a field of butterflies; Doniphan did, right across from Grandpa’s house. Grandpa told me the best way to catch a butterfly was to put salt on its tail. I believed him. In many ways, Doniphan is still that same small town I visited as a kid.
But today, I’m more aware of the negatives. Doniphan seems to be frozen in time, for example. That can be quaint, but it can also be unexciting. There’s the intense heat. The eight-hour drive each way. And the motel is pretty bad.
But if I’m honest, I know that the primary cause of my ambivalence has to do with the state of our country. It’s no secret that our country has become sharply polarized since 2016, the last time I had attended. The Doniphan reunion is a microcosm of that polarization.
We’ve always insisted on the “no politics, no religion” rule, and most everyone follows it. So we’ve never had any heated arguments. But it’s difficult for me to forget that some of the relatives I will be laughing and sipping Scotch with at the gazebo hold important views significantly different from mine. Beliefs that are central to who I am. I assume it’s difficult for them as well.
As I was driving to Doniphan this past July, I had eight hours to think about all this. Could I, for one weekend, simply block out this part of my relatives’ personas? Could they? Could we still enjoy what we’ve always enjoyed? I was going to find out.
When the reunion was over, I had another eight-hour drive home to reflect on the weekend. (It’s been a long time since I’ve spent 16 hours thinking about anything.)
Realization #1: I thoroughly enjoyed the reunion, and participating in all the rituals.
Realization #2: These people, and this event, are important to me.
Realization #3: Important enough for me to temporarily ignore the huge differences between my patriotic values and theirs.
I just won’t vote for any of them for president.
Having thought all of this through, I can now rest more easily. I know that even though I won’t be there, my son, daughter-in-law and grandchild(ren?) will probably be spending the weekend of July 19, 2052, in the newly modernized Rocky River Inn in Doniphan, Missouri, the land of legend and romance. And Sister Lively.
That makes this old guy feel good.