The shrinks are back. I don't tend to think of my husband, who is a shrink, as an actual shrink until he brings home Sue and Heidi, the mother/daughter shrink duo he has known forever. Three shrinks inside one house is, I can attest, a fairly high concentration; whenever possible, I like to plan outdoor activities so as to maximize the evaporation of psychic steam. So today was just grilled chicken and salmon on the patio, and now we're capping off the evening with a bonfire up on the ridge where the dead cherry tree used to stand but now is more or less toast.

"So you're not going to sacrifice anything?" I ask the group. "Maybe stick some pins into dolls and toss them into the fire as a way of purging negative feelings?"

"Um, no," Heidi, the daughter, says, in such a way as to ask: Where are you getting this?

At that point, and completely out of nowhere, Sue, the mother, starts singing. "Oh how lovely is the evening, is the evening, is the evening."

Heidi joins in: "When the bells are sweetly singing."

Uh-oh. Does this mean I'm going to have to sing? I don't come from campfire song people. My Girl Scout days numbered exactly two.

Then Michelle, Sue's other daughter, who is not a shrink but a dancer, joins in: "Ding dong, ding dong." Even they are aware of an element of silliness to this, the three of them enjoying a return to some simpler time. So the rest of us don't protest. We just sit back and take in the harmony, the spicy smell of the fire, the warm satisfaction of Sue's peach pie in our bellies. In an instant the whole scene shifts for me, from amusing shrink attack to a picture of a gracefully aging woman, gray and content, and her two grown-up daughters.

Pretty soon the three have joined in a round: "Oh, the more we get together, the happier we'll be."

This display of family unity gives me pause. Sue, who is in her sixties, raised her girls as a single mom, back when that sort of thing still turned heads. And she worked full time. Her kids, back then, might have been thought of in terms of the lingo of a changing time. "Latchkey kids." "A broken family."

And now here they are, all grown up, a mother whose two daughters are her friends. How does a mother accomplish that? Under the best of circumstances it would seem to be against the odds. Nowadays, Sue and Heidi ride horses together, two mornings a week, just the two of them. Sue and Michelle share a love of music and making things; earlier this evening Michelle proudly showed her mother her masterpiece: the wedding dress she made for her own wedding this fall. "Oh, Shell!" Sue said, cocking her head to one side. "Oh, sweetie!" Then Sue brought out photos from their recent trip to the beach, the one in which Michelle's fiance, Joey, got a close-up view of how it will be to be the only man in this family.

"Together, together; the more we get together, the happier we'll be."

I'm watching Sue and her girls, and I'm trying to see myself in 25 years, gracefully or clumsily aged, gray and . . . content? I imagine Anna, my 5-year-old, by then a fashion designer acclaimed on Paris runways for her outlandish use of feathers. Sasha, now 3, will have just solved a suspension-bridge problem that has stumped engineers for centuries. And, on a late summer night, I'll call them and say, "Hey, girls, let's meet at an old friend's house for a bonfire and some campfire songs!"

And they will think: Huh? They will say, "I'm sorry, who's calling?" Or, they will say, "Sounds great, Mom. What time?"

How do you get to be one of those kinds of mothers? How do you get to be old and older still, gray and grayer still, and two of your best friends are your own daughters? How do I get to be Sue?

All I know is what the answer isn't. You can't be best friends with your toddler, or your grade-schooler or, heaven knows, your teenager. Your job is infinitely larger than friendship. The more I think about it, it's probably selfish to want my girls to be my friends when I'm old. This is probably one of those goals you have a chance of getting only by letting go of it.

One of the things I suppose I can do is bone up on campfire songs. I know only a few of these tunes that Sue and Heidi and Michelle are singing with abandon on the top of our ridge where the cherry tree once stood. It's funny how no one is leading. This is all collaboration and trust. They run out of steam on one song, and pretty soon another kicks in with a little hum, hmm, hmm.

"You and me, we started as strangers; you and me, we came from afar; you and me, we started as strangers; now, we are pals."

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