My son is in love and engaged to be married. Trouble is, he wants the two families to fall in love as well. He's proposing a five-day camping trip so we can bond "au naturel." In Yiddish, there's a word, machetunim (mah-kha-TOO-nim), that encompasses the familial relationship between the two sets of parents. In English, there's no such word. "It's a marriage, not a merger," I argue, suggesting that we meet his fiancée's family at a restaurant. We compromise on a long weekend at our cottage in Pennsylvania.
Before the rendezvous, my future daughter-in-law takes out her photograph album to prep me. The parents have split but stayed buddies. One snapshot shows her father hamming it up with his second wife and their two kids, alongside his first wife and her mate. I worry: Will we, who rarely ham it up, look like fuddy-duddies?
I wonder what her parents want to know about us. Will we argue about politics? Should we reveal that hay fever runs in our family?
I know the father is a university professor. I find his name in Books in Print next to titles such as Core-Periphery Relations in Precapitalist Worlds. I ask my friends in academia, "What are core-periphery relations?" No one knows. I consider skipping the gathering and simply exchanging curricula vitae.
A few weeks later, we pull up to the cottage just as the other family arrives in their van. They emerge carrying casseroles, snacks and desserts. The father wears a backpack atop which sits a folding potty. The last passenger bounds toward me--a large poodle who, it turns out, pees on people he does not know.
The other family has brought a camcorder to document every moment, so I gesture like Oprah and ham it up a bit to head off any impression of fuddy-duddiness. At lunch, we exchange lively repartee, but after another hour I'm exhausted and retreat to my room to rest and read. I soon realize, however, that the novels I've brought with me are about dysfunctional families. Chagrined, I return to the living room, intent on proving myself a functioning family member.
The first day appears to be a success. Still, every moment vibrates with significance. The sense of an agenda persists, like humidity weighing down the air.
The next day, I note with approval that the other father is happy when his daughters catch fish while he, the expert, gets not a nibble. My son's future wife also impresses me. When we emerge from a stream, covered with leeches, she--a wetlands researcher--calmly picks them off us, one by one.
Later, we go to a lake. While my son and his loved one do tai chi on the grassy shore, I swim out to the raft. The other father follows me and we drop to the hot planks. "So, should they get married?" he suddenly asks. I shrug. "It's not up to us, is it?" I say.
But he, like my husband, believes in the concern-equals-love school of parenting. He requires my opinion. I sit upright and we discuss the matter, seriously and at length. We conclude that, yes, our children are right for each other and, yes, they should marry.
Over the weekend, we swap opinions on subjects ranging from handguns, ecology and Muslim history to public schools, the Internet and gutter repair. We also jockey for status as to who leads the simplest life. I let it be known that we don't own a dishwasher. They top me: their country cottage has no toilet, only an outhouse.
On our last night at the cottage, our soon-to-be-wed children take us out to lie on the grass and look at the stars. They then lead us inside, put on a tape and get everybody to dance. My son and his fiancée dance fast, slow down and then embrace. The rest of us--we machetunim--cheer.
As for core-periphery relations, I still can't define the phrase, but I think I've just experienced one.