We settled on the gold lamé photo backdrop for our family cruise portrait.
Mario, a “professional memory catcher,” finished shooting the mom and pint-size daughter in matching party outfits lined up ahead of us at the photographer’s station, then turned to our group with an enthusiastic, “OK! If those of you with glasses . . . Oh, wait, you ALL have glasses.”
He scanned our seven sets of sensible shoes, long pants, and milky complexions, and managed to get a shot with 14 eyes open. Success.
My siblings, spouses, and I were on this Caribbean cruise to honor our parents. Dad, who had died at age 99 a few months prior, before, had loved to travel, and when we were kids, he loved to line us up in front of the sights we visited for photos, Kodak slides by the tray full. Mom, a homebody to the core who had passed away a few years earlier at 93, had gone along with mostly good-natured protest.
Until now family gatherings had centered on the two of them. We traveled to places that had steps they could manage and climates they could tolerate. As they became more frail, we just gathered around them.
With both gone, what would happen to the relationships among us children and our families, who live scattered across the United States?
We agreed we would need to work at keeping connected, and travel would be an important part of that. Though as kids, family travels with Mom and Dad had tended inclined toward econo-economy motels with kitchenettes and roll-away cots, we thought a classic big-ship cruise would be a good way to start this next phase of family life.
The reasoning: There would be plenty of options for things to do, including nothing. There would be no need for uncomfortable decisions about how expensive a hotel to book, or whether to get dessert. If anyone had too much of togetherness, 15 decks of separation awaited.
After rounds of e-mails to decide on a cruise that would take us to Mexico and the Cayman Islands, we flew to Galveston, Texas, from three corners of the country: Massachusetts, California, and Washington state. Getting there meant coordinating the schedules of four complex households, with everyone’s adult children left home to their own crowded schedules.
Finally, we made it to the ship! We were excited! We learned that the cruise line’s word of the week was “FUN,” with an itinerary called “Fun Times” distributed daily to each cabin offering such enticements as “Mini Golf, Big Fun” and “Fun Finds Shopping Show.”
Our weeklong cruise was delayed and shortened two days by an oil spill in the harbor, but that only made it more exciting to feel our giant home-away-from-home nudge away from the dock when the all-clear came. As we hung over a cabin railing, we shared the kind of buzz I imagine Dad had felt as he pulled the packed family Ford out of the driveway. From a deck or two below, a euphoric fellow passenger hollered, “I’M ON A BOAT!”
What would almost five days of limitless family gathering hold? In recent years, conversations had centered on our parents’ health and living situation: What would happen if Mom’s leg didn’t heal, did Dad need more help than assisted living provided? What would we talk about now?
For starters, we passed up the Family Bean Bag Challenge and the Secrets to a Flatter Stomach seminar, and found a quiet corner — to read poetry together. It had been one of my sisters’ ideas that each of us should bring along a favorite book of verse to share.
I brought a collection by Billy Collins, prompted partly by his poem “The Art of Drowning.” Rather than having your life flash before your eyes, he says in the well-loved piece, “wouldn’t you hope for a more leisurely review, an invisible hand turning the pages of an album of photographs . . . ”
Parked in a cluster of chairs out of the sun’s glare, our group got a few second glances from swimsuit-clad passersby, but the “leisurely review” fest felt just right to us.
At times we split up. One afternoon a brother-in-law chose to spend his time horizontal, strawberry daiquiri in hand by the ship’s pool, while a subset of four headed ashore to Mayan ruins on a cruise-organized excursion. (After a couple of hours marched under a blistering sun by a merciless tour guide, this contingent would have traded the history lesson for liquid relief of any kind.) A more adventuresome pair struck out to explore the port independently. (It turned out there wasn’t much available to see or do that wasn’t wrapped up by cruise line operators.) The day’s consensus: The daiquiri was the smart itinerary.
The rhythm of our days quickly fell into place. We met for breakfast, which stretched for an hour or more as we plotted the day, and for dinner, where our same assigned table was vaguely reminiscent of the family table we grew up with.
Breakfasts and lunches were foraged from the copious buffets. We noted that Mom would have hated the wasted food, as plates heaped at the various stations were often barely touched, then abandoned for staff to clear while guests decamped to different tables for more. We joked about grabbing an extra dinner roll to slide inside a pocket for later, as Dad used to do during his last years.
At the end of the cruise, we all declared it a success. (I’m pretty sure about the unanimous part. One realization that came out of the experience: We’re too polite to argue.)
We had navigated the passing of generational leadership and were now, officially, the next wave. Our second gathering will be centered at a Mennonite writers conference in Fresno, Calif., this spring, but we might do another cruise sometime — after the fun of this one wears off.Thomasine Berg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.