Mr. Chatterbox

Mr. Chatterbox Faces His Family

This month: Our humor columnist attends a family reunion.

By Robert Plunket August 28, 2017 Published in the September 2017 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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I got so worked up about my impending family reunion that I ended up in the psych ward of Sarasota Memorial Hospital. I was put there by mistake, of course—something I’m sure everybody in the psych ward says. They ran out of rooms in the regular ward. The doctors thought I might be having a stroke. My symptoms were blurred vision, headaches, high blood pressure and something called “agitation.”

It turned out it wasn’t a stroke, they decided, just a special kind of migraine headache, and they released me after one day. I was hoping the doctors would nix the trip to the reunion, but they said, go, it will do you good. So I got into the car and headed to Pawleys Island, South Carolina.

Why was I so apprehensive? The answer is simple. My siblings and I started out more or less equal, but as we have grown older, I have come to be known as the family loser, the “flaky” one. This is particularly painful because I was always the golden child—my parents’ favorite, the one with the best grades. In second grade of Catholic school I was so well behaved that the nuns chose me out of all the boys to crown the statue of the Virgin during the May Day ceremony.

They’ve all done quite well for themselves, my siblings. My brother Jack has a new Subaru and a new truck. My sister Patricia has a full-time housekeeper and a full-time gardener. My sister Lucy was footing the bill for the rental of the reunion beach house—$3,500 per week.

And look at me.

I’m planning to downsize to a trailer in Tri Par Estates because they raised my condo fees to $360 a month and I just can’t afford it.

In addition to my brother Jack, plus his son and son’s family, who all live in Pawleys Island, my older sister Lucy, her husband and three daughters and their families came from Chicago. And my younger sister Patricia traveled from Mexico. In all, 20 people were scattered among the beach house, my brother’s house, and a motel where the smallest children, with their delightful high-pitched screams and laughter, were wisely put.

Pawleys Island is a barrier island, like Anna Maria. An old-time family resort where generations of well-heeled Carolinians and Georgians vacation, it’s located in a mostly unpopulated stretch of pine forest between Charleston and Myrtle Beach. The homes tend to be older and less pretentious than in newer places like Hilton Head, and the main draw is there is absolutely nothing to do but go to the beach.

It’s nice not to have a choice. In Sarasota you are bombarded with choices. You can shop, go to fashionable restaurants, sightsee, go to see Tony Bennett or look at real estate. In Pawleys Island the only attraction is a Publix, across the bridge on the mainland. (Although I must say I heaved a sigh of relief when I saw that Publix. Maybe South Carolina isn’t so backward after all.)

So we went to the beach. Every morning, after preparing an enormous breakfast—lots of bacon and a bottle of coffee liqueur next to the coffee maker, so we could add a “splash”—my niece Sarah would head down to the beach and set up the tents that we sat under all day. She also made sure that there was water and sunblock handy. And to top it off, she’s an emergency room physician. You have no idea how comforting it is to have an emergency room physician along on a family reunion, although at times during the next several days I wished one of the kids had become a family therapist as well.

All four siblings are hovering around 70, so we weren’t quite as carefree as in the past. A walk down to the pier broke up at the halfway point when we all realized we had to run back to the house and pee. On the third day appeared that moment we’d all been dreading—the Trump argument. My nephew-in-law Mike is not exactly a Trump supporter, but he is a Trump “understander,” and his cogent and well-reasoned assessments of what the President was doing for small business could often be heard in the living room. Two factions developed: those who wanted to argue and those who fled to the porch to talk about the old days.

And there was a lot to talk about. The romance of our unusual childhood—by the time I graduated from high school we had lived in five foreign countries. Our dead parents and how they would have loved this place. Jack’s old girlfriends, for he had been quite the ladies’ man in his youth.

I hate to say it, but I was amazed at how well my siblings had turned out. Each had far exceeded my expectations. Lucy raised four kids (two of whom became doctors), composed avant-garde music and wrote a scholarly book about ebonics. Jack started out as a hippie carpenter but ended up working for a defense contractor in a highly classified job he’s not allowed to talk about. He did let it slip that Dick Cheney once praised one of his designs.

And Patricia became a famous archaeologist. Her specialty is civilizations that have been destroyed by volcanoes, and she spends most of her time digging up ancient ruins. From her I got the best takeaway of the reunion: “Put as much information as possible on your tombstone. A thousand years from now the archaeologists will appreciate it.”

The final day was perfect. We spent hours in the water, which was as warm as the Gulf but quite a bit rougher—perfect for body surfing. When we were teenagers in the 1960s we spent family vacations in a rented house on Revolcadero Beach in Acapulco, famous for its body surfing. Now, for an afternoon, we were transported back—the four of us together again, body surfing our little hearts out. It all came back to me: the exact moment to catch the wave, the proper arch of the back. We went on for hours, borne back ceaselessly into the past like that guy in The Great Gatsby. And you want to know something? I was the best.

Here’s the thing about sibling rivalry. When you reach 70, you see who won and who lost. And oddly enough, it doesn’t matter. Everything kind of evens out. Oh, I suppose it might matter if one of us had become a hedge fund billionaire. That’s a family reunion I wouldn’t want to attend. But I was content as I drifted off to sleep that last night, still feeling the waves. As per my sister’s advice, I began to picture my tombstone. “Gossip Columnist” it would say, of course. And “Animal Lover.” But now I’m planning to add “Acclaimed Body Surfer.” A bit of a boast perhaps, but how are they going to know a thousand years from now?

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