Boring. Big family dinners are boring for kids. I remember this. I remember being 10 and finding ways to amuse myself. I learned how to get a spoon to stick on my nose. Then I refined the technique and got one to stick on my chin and two on my cheekbones. I taught these important tricks to my nieces and nephews as they reached the age to get bored at big family gatherings.

So it could just be boredom. But I suspect something else is going on for Katie, my niece, who has just turned 12.

We're in the Astor Room at my parents' retirement village, a kind of multipurpose room where the residents can entertain large groups. We use this room whenever my gigantic family happens to be in the hometown area, at which time we usually do a collective birthday party. The family has grown much too large to do individual celebrations, so usually it's more of a quarterly thing. At this gathering we're doing: February, March, April and May.

Katie's is the only kid birthday in this particular grouping, so we're giving her full notice. Balloons with her name on them, streamers. She doesn't appear to want all this fuss. Or she wants more. She hates what she's wearing. Or maybe not. But does this shirt even match this skirt? The real problem could be her hair. Her image! She wants to be a teenager. She wants to stay a tomboy. What is the matter with her? She is, by everyone's reckoning, "not herself."

"You okay, KK?" I ask. She shrugs. She's stirring her rigatoni, otherwise untouched. She's resting her head on her fist as if it's simply too heavy.

I don't know this girl. The Katie I know is bubbly, full of life, embracing her role as hero to my daughters, chattering about softball and fairies and her dream of one day owning a barn with three horses.

This Katie, utterly unaware of how beautiful she's becoming, is sullen, removed. Apparently, sharing her birthday with a bunch of grown-ups in a retirement village is not doing it for her. Funny, because last year she was fine with it. Last year she was all kid. Now she seems to wonder what she has to offer her younger cousins, 3 and 5 and consumed with rainbows and sparkles and unicorns. She has nothing yet to say to her next oldest cousin, 21, in a band, graduating from college. All alone. She is heading into adolescent angst all alone.

I want to reach out. I want to say, "There, there," and "You'll make it through." But even watching is hard. I'm slicing my beef. I'm trying to figure out what to say. I ask Claire if she has any idea what to say. She asks Eileen. We're the aunts. We should swoop in to the rescue. Instead we seem to be circling. Maybe this is just how middle-aged people handle adolescence, much as we respond to old age. Stay away lest it rub off.

It is rubbing off. "But she's going through it all alone," I say to Claire. "Isn't that terrible?" This, I realize, is pure projection. I went through it alone, thanks to Claire. Does Claire even remember abandoning me for her teenage friends? No, she does not. As a matter of fact, Claire thinks she went through adolescence all alone. I suppose we all do.

All at once, I see a glimmer of hope. A spoon. Katie has a spoon on her nose. I'm pleased to see her think of that to at least combat the boredom. I feel proud that I've given her that much.

Then my daughter Anna sees the spoon. Uh-oh. Somehow, this never occurred to me: I don't want to raise kids who stick spoons on their noses. But it's way too late for that now. Anna has her jaw dropped in awe. She picks up a spoon, hands it to Katie as if to say, "Please?"

Katie smiles a perfectly wicked smile. My heart leaps. For Katie, for Anna, for the link. It takes some doing. Some breathing on the spoon to create just the right touch of moisture. Steady hands. Easy now. Easy. I'm not helping. (It is not a mother's place to teach bad manners.) I'm not interfering. I'm pretending not to bubble over with pride. I must be straddling 500 different roles.

Suddenly Katie stands and shouts, "She did it! Look!" The crowd turns, and applause breaks out. She did it! A new generation. A new nose. And Katie has found a new calling. She is the proud antihero capably passing on the tradition to this younger set. By dessert, she's leading her charges in a utensil extravaganza -- spoons on noses and cheeks and chins -- while my mother, who has never personally hung a piece of flatware anywhere, buries her head in prayer.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.