The family reunion is over and, at last report, all survived. These can be high-risk exercises, as many know, during which grievances dating to biblical times are revisited, harsh words muttered sotto voceabout hairstyles and eating habits of various out-of-favor relatives, and a general feeling of despair quickly overtakes the enterprise. In such instances, the most common conversation starter is: "Whose idea was this, anyway?"
Happily, I can report that swing-outs and restraining orders were averted. My brother-in-law, whose politics and mine rarely have converged over the past half-century, surprised everyone by renouncing — with a microphone, yet! — his apostate views and said he was coming over to my side. It took 50 years, but a conversion is a conversion. Patience is a virtue, after all.
There was a slideshow, beautifully done, but leaving little doubt that we are considerably older than when the snapshots — recently scanned, scrubbed and digitized — were taken years ago and the film sent in yellow pouches to Kodak for processing. Oh, how the crowd sighed at images of those slender fellows in bell-bottoms, and slight girls in ponytails and summer dresses. Reverie and old photographs create a hazardous mix that maybe should be regulated by environmental protection.
Bear with me here, but on the subject of self-realization, I cannot help but mention my ears.
Of late, I have been studying myself in the mirror — for the older person, a feat as precarious as cliff diving — and was shocked to discover that my ears seemed larger than I remember. I mean, a lot larger. After the reunion slideshow, I checked again. There they were — big, flappy, pale, pink paddles that summoned memories of Mr. Potato Head. How did this happen, I wondered? Some sort of senior growth spurt? You won't believe this but the Internet says there is scientific evidence that ears expand in later years! Wrinkles, sagging skin, watery eyes — all to be expected. But bigger ears?
Bewildered, I asked my wife, Wink, if I had always seemed a distant cousin of Dumbo, or was this a recent development?
"Always," Wink said, as though it was something she had been intending to mention since 1963, when we married. "Relax."
Instead of solace, tough love. Great.
Back to the reunion.
There was a picnic at which the younger folks — those not yet conscripted by AARP — played touch football for hours and, despite grunts and gasps, ended the game without casualty. We had a pizza party, too, but the reunion was way out on the West Coast and, instead of mushrooms or eggplant, the alleged pie came with pineapple and ham — alarming for a Brooklyn guy. No matter. Most of the relatives — good folks from places like Rochester, Washington state, Maryland, Virginia, Utah and the separate nation known as California — downed one slice after another as though the pie had been flown in from Totonno's of Coney Island.
Grandchildren splashed in the motel's indoor pool and zoomed from place to place, evidently unbothered by what must have seemed a remarkable number of people who walked slowly and asked that everything be repeated. On a nearby beach, people took early morning walks, bundled up in sweatshirts against the prevailing Pacific winds, and, father to son, mother to daughter, discussed the world and their small place in it.
At a big sit-down dinner on the last night, we all said nice things about one another, as though at a support group, and various reunionites stood to pay tribute to the family and its elders — very tribal and sincere. My brother-in-law spoke of his political turnabout and even wore socks for the occasion. People cheered. Departed souls were hailed with reverence and, sometimes, tears, and younger people who married into the clan celebrated what they saw as their good fortune. In life's scratch-off lottery, the late recruits graciously said, they had come up winners.
As the night wore on and the stock of chardonnay and cabernet ran low, we recited familiar pledges. Hope we see you up at the lake or maybe we'll get down to Florida. Yes, of course, if you're ever in town, give us a ring. We shouldn't let so many years go by again, because, well, you know, because. On a deck outside, we shook hands and hugged and looked together at the Western sky, packed with stars. A mile away, the ocean crashed, eternal.
Next morning, we ate pancakes, packed up, drove hours to the airport and took the red-eye home. Friends, let my suffering be a lesson. Do not take the red-eye anywhere. Days of disorientation are assured, and you will dream hideously of being trapped, vice-like, in a small padded chair while merciless flight attendants appear with packets of peanuts just out of reach.
Shortly after we regained equilibrium, the New Yorker magazine ran a cartoon showing identical men on either side of an executive-style desk. The fellow behind said to the one in front: "As my stunt double, you'll be doing all of my press conferences, court appearances, and family reunions."
No doubt, some people suffer through these affairs. Me? I'm lucky. The family in question is Wink's, though after 51 years of marriage, I feel as much a part of her camp as my own. Still, as the reunion progressed, I found myself stepping back a bit and taking note of how the whole thing worked, this family thing. Complicated, powerful, essential.
One of the relatives saw me lurking and said, "Hey, you're awfully quiet. Everything all right?"
"Sure," I said. "Just taking it all in — listening."
"Ah," he nodded, studying me for what seemed one moment too many. "Yes, of course, listening." Don't try to tell me otherwise. He meant the ears.