We are at a Catskill resort to celebrate my parents’ 50th anniversary. Even in its heyday, the Homowack would not have been up to my family’s standards. It’s not that it wasn’t fancy enough—my parents gravitated toward rustic North Carolina lodges. It just attracted a different type of guest, those from Brooklyn or the Bronx, where most patrons are more religiously observant and perhaps less refined than those of us who hail originally from Atlanta and Seattle. But we sought a place with kosher food near my parents’ New York and New Jersey children and grandchildren.
When I asked in advance about wheelchair accessibility, I heard with my ears the answer that Mother will have to use the entrance near the kitchen. With my ears, not with my brain. I picture my kitchen door, and that doesn’t seem so bad. Arriving a bit ahead of my folks, my husband Julian and I check out the back entrance. I am horrified that my 78-year-old mother, the guest of honor, will enter through a swarm of flies buzzing about the garbage cans. How can I be subjecting my mother to this indignity? She finds her limitations indignity enough.
I don’t recall inviting my aunts, but one by one they accepted. “I was at the wedding; I’m going to be at the 50th anniversary celebration,” they declared in almost identical words. “Along with my friend, or my daughter, or my regular aide.”
At Friday night services, I discover that the featured guest is the evangelical Rebbetzin (Rabbi’s wife) Jungreis. Oh boy, I think, as I look around at my genteel Reform cousin who looks like a swami in her impromptu head covering. I fear that the Rebbetzin’s fervor will overwhelm my family, who take their Judaism in small, manageable doses.
The next afternoon, Aunt Jo, whose beliefs are as fiery as ever, even though age –84 – has toned her flaming hair down to a dusty red, complains. “They must know I’m a Reform Jew. No one says ‘hello’ when they pass me in the hall.” I gently explain that most guests are New Yorkers, who lack the southerner’s innate friendliness. My “nothing personal” doesn’t seem to reassure her.
Julian and I suggest a picnic at a state park for the geriatric members of our group: my parents, my three aunts, Mom’s nurse, and my aunts’ three traveling companions. First stop is the resort kitchen to get sandwiches made to order: this without mustard, that without mayonnaise, another with no onion or garlic. I drive my little car and Julian steers my sister’s station wagon, leaving her and her husband behind to care for our respective children.
As we go up the mountain, I hear something scrape the ground under the car. I stop, climb down from the driver’s seat, and peer under the car. No branch that I can see. We continue, and the scraping continues. I climb down, peer, nothing appears. We drive a little further, more scraping, another stop. This time we all climb down and look. There seems to be more space between the floor and the road with the load lightened. Darn, I hope I don’t pop my springs. Too bad I have two extra-large people in the back seat of my little Dodge Aries on this steep road. I load my weighty passengers back into the car. Please, no disasters. I can’t imagine where the closest repair shop is.
“B.J., darling, I need a bathroom stop. Can you find a place?” Aunt Emilie’s voice sounds more desperate than her words.
At a crossroads, I pull up in front of a restaurant with a sign, “If you’re not planning to eat here, don’t even ask about using our facilities.” I park anyway, and with Aunt Emilie accompanying me in baby steps, cross the highway to another eating establishment. This one claims no public facilities. We creep back to the car, then drive across the other way. This time I ask Aunt Emilie to wait in the car while I negotiate. I know I’m going to have to say things that will embarrass her, and I prefer that she not be listening in.
I convince the deli servers to let my aunt use the employees’ facilities, a third-world embarrassment to the clean, first-world, New York State in which we supposedly travel. And I worried about what I’d have to say? Phew!
Mission accomplished, we continue to scrape our way up the mountainside to the state park. Now it’s Mom’s turn to use the facilities, a large, rustic, handicapped-accessible rest room with a toilet on one side and a sturdy hand rail five feet away from the toilet. It’s fortunate that Mom’s nurse and I are there to help.
At last we head down the paved path to lakeside picnic tables set among tall hardwoods. Mom’s smile while her nurse pushes her along the pavement among the trees displays her pleasure at the view of the lake. Julian and I move the canoe from car top to water, And I help my beaming Aunt Jo climb in. “She sailed away on a bright and sunny day,” flits through my head as Julian pulls away from shore. They paddle back and forth, Aunt Jo mostly resting, Julian doing the work.
Meanwhile I unpack the lunch. The paddlers return to shore, and we help Aunt Jo to the table. We maneuver my aunts’ legs over the picnic benches chained to the tables. Who would carry them away from this remote spot? We all settle down to eat, lake in the background, leafy canopy overhead. Now I pass out the food: “without mustard” for Aunt Dorah, “without mayo” for Aunt Emilie. With a seriousness that’s hard to describe, the eleven of us spread over two tables, dappled sunlight landing on our sandwiches, and dig in. We remind me of a cartoon with only one possible caption, “Are we having fun yet?”
Are we having fun yet? Are we having fun at all? Why is this family group, who know and love each other, so serious, almost morose looking? Are the picnic benches too uncomfortable, the picnic food not fine enough?
And yet, at the end of the day, they rave to the stay-behinds about their good time. The final day, they all proclaim the picnic in the Catskills to be the highlight, after the anniversary party itself. I will never again hear the phrase, “Are we having fun yet?” without picturing the dour faces and grim expressions of my aunts and their travel companions on one sunny afternoon in the Catskill Mountains.
Fun? They thought so.