We gather in the dining room of the old house to have cake and ice cream to honor a beloved aunt who died more than 45 years ago. This month would be her 100th birthday. Wide-eyed around the table are children ranging from 4 months to 9 years old and their parents, who are in their 30s and 40s. They are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren who never knew this warm, wonderful woman with bright brown eyes, who towered nearly six feet tall. And so we, the gray-haired children whom she nurtured a lifetime ago, begin to tell stories.
How precious is this moment in the intimate history of a family with its many branches and generations, all coming together in the pine-paneled room of my grandparents' summer house on a remote island in Maine.
Whether it's going back to the family farm, renting a cottage at the beach or camping out in a national park, summer hosts the annual ritual of sharing time and space with the extended family. In a mobile society, where families tend to bowl alone as scattered nuclear units, the summer vacation has emerged as the prime arena for the family writ large. This is when cousins bond, aunt and uncle siblings catch up, the in-laws assimilate (or not) and the grandparents manage and enjoy.
And it's not all fun and frolic. Built into the summer vacation is the tension between the larger community and the individual. Whose rules prevail over the group? Someone has to make the birthday cake and clean up afterward. There are parents who ask their children what they want for breakfast. Others who stay in bed and tell their children to get their own. Let's go on a picnic? Who makes the tuna fish sandwiches and remembers to bring sunscreen?
Family vacations are the Thanksgiving dinner that lasts for weeks. Wine spilled on the tablecloth, too many dishes, little spats and big fights, the usual assortment of purple hair and pierced body parts, a range of sexual behaviors kept out of sight but speculated upon, much political divergence, widening economic disparities and avoidance of unsolvable issues - except when matters get out of hand, which they do from time to time. Someone always has a meltdown - usually in the kitchen.
There is injustice. The workload is not equal. Glory and attention are not evenly dispersed. The "normals" get disgruntled and complain that you have to have a problem to get noticed. The outliers feel the heat of disapproval. Everyone feels the pressure of Group March. Everyone expects the magic of vacation to lift them out of the strain of regular life. Two weeks is a short time to shore up the architecture of a family, to make up for the long months of separation. A lot of relationships and emotions are at stake.
At the end of particularly volatile summers, the playback reminds me of the questions we journalists would pose to evaluate different health plans: Who wins? Who loses? Who pays? Who decides? Well, most of the time, the children win. The grown-ups give. The few who can, pay. Everybody kind of decides. It's a free-market democracy.
Such are the stresses and privileges that go with belonging to a large community - whether a neighborhood, a state or a nation. That's why family vacations are petri dishes for good citizenship.
The difference is that there is no outside authority to govern the group. These experiments in communal togetherness are totally unregulated. Families have to devise their own codes of behavior and connection, find ways to resolve conflict, tap leaders from within if they are to survive as a community and come together the following summer.
So far, I have always come back.
The afternoon sun settles over the house. Inside, the pine walls and ceilings are stained a bluish green, like an aquarium; painted on one dining room wall is a school of goldfish and some white foam of cascading waves, a magical sea world of childhood and memory - far, far away from the blunter realities of adulthood.
The cake is gooey, the children are noisy. We pass around photographs: a black-and-white family snapshot from the 1940s, my aunt at one end, with a huge smile, three children in the middle, and on the other end, looking down, is her husband, Lincoln. "Abraham Lincoln?" shouts a child. No, not that Lincoln! Everybody laughs. But suddenly the air is heavy for those who knew her, as each of us, privately, silently, remembers the divorce, and so quickly afterward, her death from cancer at age 54. ... More cake, cry the children. We raise a glass of champagne in her honor.
Family stories are not all jolly. Sorrow and pain weave through the tapestry of every life. The children whose faces are smeared with chocolate frosting will have their share. We who are grandparents and great-aunts and great-uncles take the long view. How often we have come together at different phases of our lives to hold and heal as well as to laugh and play.
The purpose of holding together the extended family is to provide a safe harbor - safe emotional space - for the many different individuals connected by blood and choice. Sometimes we return from our regular life journeys in triumph; other times, we come back wounded, confused, bored or betrayed. But as long as the lights are on in the harbor, we have a refuge beyond ourselves and our immediate households.
Otherwise, we are alone and fragile in an era when the workplace batters young and old, marriages run into trouble and the diagnosis of major illness hangs out on the horizon. How much we expect from the extended-family vacation as a way to preserve the safe harbor for current and future generations.
It's not easy. The burden often falls on the tribal elders who urge the dispersed to come together, who take the grandchildren without their parents on trips to the Grand Canyon or rent a house on the Eastern Shore that's big enough for everyone, who comfort the distressed in the midst of a divorce, who change the sheets on the beds, who meet the planes and counsel warring siblings to make peace, who adjudicate squabbles over who gets a turn on the swing, who cook the dinners for 18 and extract the puzzle pieces from the sofa, who read aloud "Alice in Wonderland" and "Goodnight Moon," who pray for good weather.
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