Sunday, January 13, 2013

FROM 4 TO 84

This is the time of year when our family – our large, extended family – hunts for a Cape Cod summer house that will be all things to all people. Like summer romances, summer houses are short-term affairs, our passions fueled by the intense bleakness of a New England January. Like all romances, the summer house lures with impossible promises of sun-drenched good times in the far off future.

It always starts like this: right after we put away the Christmas things, my daughter and I begin a tentative exchange of email photos of prospective houses that soon ramps up to a frenzy. I lean toward estates and mansions with staggering price tags. She, more responsibly, filters selections through our many requirements: handicapped accessible, child safe, a pool if possible, oceanfront if possible, ground floor bedroom, wifi, television, a nice kitchen for group cooking, lovely seafront vistas…and above all, the right dates of availability. It is both fun and frustrating.

The thrill of the hunt is part of the fun. Will we be on Pleasant Bay, will we find something on Nauset Beach, or will we go for pond-front. Is this the year to reach for the Vineyard?

Like childbirth veterans, each year we forget the pain of predeparture days of list-making and packing before the inevitable disappointment once we arrive at our annual destination. Those breathtaking photos never tell the whole story. There was the house with only partial air conditioning; the one with the alarm that kept going off; the one with the invasion of black carpenter ants in the kitchen; the one with the pool that overflowed; and the one that was the scene of a spat that left spilled red wine on a white living room chair that took great effort, by turns arduous and panicked, to remove.

Each year one of our number gently reminds us that there are easier ways to do this – we could simply make reservations at any of the Cape’s lovely resort hotels. No need to pack sheets and towels and half our household goods. No need to make the daily trek to the supermarket to feed our hordes. No arguments over who gets which bed and which bedroom. No teenagers fighting over whose turn it is for KP.

But we resist, fueled by memories of board games nights in which everyone threw aside pretensions and competed like hell. Movie nights with everyone sprawled on the living room floor. The incredible risotto we ate on the patio, lingering over wine as the longest twilight changed to dusk and ever so slowly, nightfall. We are not hotel guests, we are a family and we want the fun of being under one roof.  

As we make email inquiries to the owners we write proudly, “We are a four-generation family, ranging in age from 4 to 84.” I always figured that made us sound responsible, upright, and trustworthy. Possibly. More recently, I’ve come to understand the full impact of what it means to be a four-generation family
What is age four, but the epitome of youthful delight? Impossibly cute, a princess world in which everything is all right, all problems are small and solvable, and naps are the certain cure for whininess. A world in which adults are bowled over by precociousness, in which it is possible to get lost in a project building sandcastles or collecting shells for no real purpose. Who wouldn’t like age 4?

But if you have 4 you must also have 84 – at least you must if you are a four-generation family. Eighty-four comes with a collection of meds so complicated they must be sorted into colored boxes at the start of each week. Eighty-four is all about fading memories and failing strength, and the ever-present fear of falling. But mostly, 84 represents all that can no longer be done. Those rental house lists of exhausting activities are of no interest: there will be no surfing, bike riding, hiking, hockey or horseback riding. Merely being with family has to be enough.

There may not be much to recommend about being 84, but I keep thinking about the symmetry of that spread of years. I think it enriches us. When we are together we all look out for each other. If the four-year-old falls, any one of us will stop, reassure her, and set her on her way again. If the 84-year-old needs help, any one of us will likewise be there for him.

In some ways, our search for the perfect summer rental is an affirmation of the rightness of this spread of years, an acceptance of the fact that we are indeed a family – a collection of individuals spanning many decades, united by our DNA and marriages.

We represent an impossible range of needs, experiences, likes and desires, but for one week a year we can celebrate our diversity and live together under one roof.

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