WE'RE HERE IN THE dining room, having burgers and corn. We're discussing, as families do, who eats corn in the typewriter fashion, from left to right, and who eats it the spiral way, around and around the cob.
"Okay, we have seven typewriters and one spiral," Alex says. "Matt, you are our only spiral!"
Matt, who is 5, flashes a grin. He likes being special.
"Well, I used to eat it that way," says Michael, his 7-year-old brother, "but I changed last year."
"Honey, you have corn all over your face," says Tracy, his mother.
"And, okay everybody, watch this," Michael goes on, determined to outdo his brother. He makes a tepee out of three corn cobs.
"That's enough, Michael," says Sean, his uncle. "Don't play with your food."
It's a typical family reunion. I'm thrilled to have everybody here. I love having the noise of family filling this room, this house.
Except, well, this isn't my family. This is my friend Wendy's family. And Wendy isn't here.
It is weird to host a family reunion for a group of strangers. Weirder still to feel so . . . comfortable at it. I am starting to get uncomfortable with the fact that this is so comfortable.
These people are here because we're having a surprise baby shower for Wendy and her husband, Tim, in the morning, and all of Wendy's relatives live out of town, and, well, they needed someplace to stay. They needed someplace to eat. So I invited them here.
But I barely even know these people.
I've met Tracy and Sean only once before. I've never before today met Wendy's mother or stepfather, both of whom, yes, eat corn in the typewriter fashion.
"Wendy's mom," I say, "could you please pass me the salad?"
"Jane," she says. She keeps asking me to call her "Jane." Which I cannot seem to do. She looks too much like "Wendy's mom." By the time dinner is over I've shortened "Wendy's mom" to just "Mom."
"No, Mom, you are not allowed to clear the table," I say. "You sit and relax."
"Oh, thanks dear."
In the kitchen, Alex stands by the sink and scratches his head. He looks as confused as I feel. He says, "Do you sort of feel that we just plucked our family out and airlifted these people in?"
"I feel so relaxed with these people," he says. "I feel like they're our family, just with different faces."
"I'm a little disturbed to find that our family is so interchangeable," he says.
Me too. I thought our family was . . . special. I thought the comfy-cozy feeling you had only with your family was, well, only with your family. That unique feeling of belonging. Alex and I are both having an epiphany here, somewhat delighted and somewhat dismayed to learn that the feeling of belonging is . . . portable.
"Maybe it's just Wendy's family," I say. "Maybe they're just nice people and we happen to click with them."
"Maybe," he says, reaching for the ice cream bowls. "But our family. Isn't it . . . special?"
"Well, I thought so," I say. He takes the bowls and I take the ice cream and we return to our guests.
"Ice cream sundaes!" I say to the group. "Who wants hot fudge and who wants caramel?"
"Fudge," they say, all of them, in unison. As if delivering a cheer. They laugh. This means something. An old family joke of some sort?
"We are a chocolate family," says Mom. "Big time."
Oh. Well, I knew that. (Not.) And soon they're all telling chocolate stories. And then pet stories. They're good stories, I guess.
In the morning we gather with more of Wendy's relatives and all of Tim's family at a country inn up the road. Wendy and Tim walk in at precisely 11 o'clock. "Surprise!" They're shocked. They're stunned. We're afraid Wendy's going to go into labor. I videotape the whole thing. Afterward, everybody comes back here, to our house. More food. More noise. More fun. We all watch the videotape together amid rising laughter.
But Alex, he's not laughing. And neither am I. I mean, we don't quite get the jokes. We are watching the exact same tape of the exact same experience, and we don't get the jokes.
"Look at Mom!" Wendy says. "She looks just like she did that time she dunked me in the pool!"
Dunked her in the pool? When? What happened?
"Oh, it's a long, long story."
A long, long story. That's the difference. Families have long stories. They make, and are made by, shared legends. It takes a long time to make long stories.
As soon as the last person leaves, Alex picks up line 1 and calls his daughter. I sink into the couch and prepare for a visit on line 2 with my mom.
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is email@example.com.