It's so hot out it hurts, so we're hunkered inside, thanking God for air conditioning. We need an activity. We're discussing museums, a trip down the Nile via Imax, a sale at Old Navy featuring back-to-school fashions. The first requirement is air conditioning, the second more problematic: one activity that fits all. We want to stick together. We rarely get to see one another. My parents, my sister and her husband and their kids, and I and my husband and mine. We're gathered at my house for a long weekend, and we need an activity that will accommodate 11 people, ages 83 to 4.
"The pool would have worked if it weren't so hot," I'm saying. My parents are too rickety to swim, but they would have loved sitting in the shade and watching the kids splash. But even shade, during a heat wave, is hard to take. On the news, they're warning old people in particular to stay inside.
"I could take the boys to the sports museum," says James, my brother-in-law, "while Mom and Dad go to the Imax show, and the kids go watch the fountains."
"That's not sticking together," my sister Claire says.
"We could all go to see 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,'" I say, promoting the one idea I care most about. "We could get big vats of popcorn and sink in those big seats!"
"A cartoon?" my mother says.
"Well, not exactly," I say. "It's, you know, Tim Burton -- "
No, she doesn't know.
Out of nowhere, as if inspired by angels of an entirely different planet, Claire says, "Hey, why don't we just stay here?"
Here? Home? No . . . activity? Glances go around the room. It takes a moment for this concept to sink in. No activity? It's so retro! It's what families did when the whole unit more or less lived in the same town and visits were not giant, planned events. Just Aunt Susie and Uncle Fred stopping over with a pie. So you call Aunt Martha to tell Uncle Mike to quit working on the car and come on over. Getting together was just getting together, no big deal. You didn't need to memorialize each visit with photos and video and stage a trip to a tourist attraction to give it meaning and lasting merit.
"You just . . . hung out," my mother says, of her days growing up poor but content and surrounded by family in north Philly.
"I say we try it," Claire says.
A debate ensues. Actual arguing and pointing of fingers. Five kids stuck in one house -- I think they're going to go bonkers and cause the rest of us to scream and curse. James thinks the boys need to get out. I do, too. My husband does not support me -- which in itself is enough to make him wrong. We go around in circles, and there is even some stomping of feet and annoyed exits, but in the end the slackers win. There will be no activity.
I'm determined to roll with this. I start popping popcorn, grumbling.
Claire peels peaches, singing.
Alex, my husband, goes into the basement to examine the washing machine housing, inviting James to participate in a Mister Fix-It extravaganza.
The boys teach the younger kids how to play Ker-Plunk in the rec room. Then the younger kids draw pictures of rainbow houses. Claire finds a recipe for peach cobbler. The rainbow house pictures become presents for Grandmom and Granddad, which the boys fold into paper airplanes for special delivery. My dad reads a book on T.S. Eliot that I forgot was on my shelf. My mom shoos the cat that won't stop curling up on her lap. I put "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" into the VCR, pass out blankets. Some of us nap. We're together, but we're alone and in varying combinations, passing one another by and by with the simple rhythm of a family, no crescendo, just a quiet, predictable beat.
When it's time for dinner, we gobble up barbecued chicken, fresh corn and peach cobbler, and when the sun goes down, we finally venture out back to watch the kids make use of the sparklers left over from the Fourth of July.
"I have to say James was right," my mom says. "It was the right idea to stay home."
"James was right?" Claire says, throwing up her hands.
"I'm just saying this was a perfect day," my mom says. "This is how it used to be. Families didn't pile into big vans, spend a lot of money to have fun. It wasn't even an option."
I agree with my mom. I wish getting together were as simple and ordinary as a game of cards and shucking corn. "It's kind of an adventure," I say, "to just let getting together be the activity."
"Thank you, James," my mom says, having completely mixed up who was on whose team earlier this day.
"Yeah, James was right," I say, because part of being a family is annoying Claire.
"I'm going to bed," Claire says.
And my mother says, "Good night, dear."
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.