We’re at our rental place at the Shore, the same rental place we’ve stayed for 25 years, and the kids next door are screaming. Full-on, let-it-all-hang-out screaming, while their parents, in quiet, reasonable voices, offer gentle suggestions: Would you like to read a book? Would you like to take a bath? To climb into bed? What the kids would like to do is scream—lustily, without abeyance, seemingly without ever taking a breath. It’s rather a remarkable feat.
I know the parents are embarrassed. I know they think I’m judging them, assessing their fitness and finding them lacking, wishing like hell they were staying anywhere in the world but next door to me. Oddly enough, they’re wrong.
In contrast to theirs, this rental house is hushed and peaceful. None of my siblings are here at the moment; neither are any of our assorted kids. These walls that two decades ago echoed with an uproar that makes the upheaval next door seem like the Christian Brothers retreat down the street are empty, except for me. Oh, my siblings will be back before long—from walks on the beach, from trips to the Acme—but even when they do, we won’t be noisy. The one child we can still coerce into vacationing among us is the baby of the clan, a teenager half excited to have all these adults lavishing attention on her, half bitter that, unlike her brothers and cousins off in the greater world, she’s stuck here with a bunch of old farts. She alternates between sullen silence and sudden bursts of violent Scrabble.
I share her ambivalence at this annual seaside family reunion. I love my brother and sisters, but without the distractions provided by children, a little can go a long way. Besides, we’re all so much more rested now that our kids are grown. We don’t have that intense battlefield fatigue to bind us, the shared weariness born of too much Kohr’s and Wild Mouse and surf and sun. We can spend endless hours reading the New York Times. We can cook using mushrooms. We don’t have to watch Nickelodeon.
I eavesdrop on our neighbors, wondering what books they might be offering their children for reading. Maybe my favorites, the subversive Frances series by Russell Hoban? I remember with the clarity of the Shore blue sky the sensation of lying, sunburned, between my son and daughter on these borrowed beds, the rigors of school and Scouts and sports so far ahead of us, our days still happy blurs of Legos and Barbies—except, of course, for getting them to bed. …
The screams escalate. Sleep is getting nearer, and thus resistance is growing. The parents’ voices are a reassuring patter, like summer rain. I’m not judging you, I want to tell them; I’m envying you. Those are the sands of time you’re washing out of swimsuits and down the circling drain. As for my siblings and me, we’re not sure where our kids are sleeping tonight. What wouldn’t we give to have them and their troubles be that small again?