The Family Is Alive and Kicking

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One frosty morning, my mother-in-law leaves our RV for the campground showers. She doesn't come back.

After a long while, we spot her wandering the look-alike campsites in her red-and-black plaid flannel robe. She looks forlorn, as if she's about to kill a caribou and hollow out its belly for shelter.

I know an opportunity when I see one. But the kids wrestle the keys from my hand before I can make our getaway.

Actually, only the first part of that story is true. Even Grandma doesn't believe me when I try to convince her that she almost had to spend her golden years clawing for survival in the Alaskan wilds.

But maybe it's a healthy sign for the American family that we're still cracking wise about mothers-in-law.

When this newspaper slaps down on your driveway, my wife, Pam, her mom (who joined us in Seattle) and our three children will be flying home on a red-eye. Friday, after 103 days on the road, 13-year-old Ashley, 10-year-old Emily and 7-year-old Robert will reenter their lives of school, soccer, Scouts, 4-H and violin lessons in Los Angeles. And I will start driving our rented RV down the Al-Can Highway and the Pacific Coast to its home port at Cruise America in Orange County.

Way back in June, in my initial dispatch for this series on American families, I mentioned that some of my colleagues were calling our summer-long expedition a scam. Now I can admit that in a sense it was--at least if anyone really expected me to understand the American family in just one season.

But our tour of 46 states did give us some interesting glimpses into that institution, and Alaska has been a fine place to put it in perspective. So here are a few final thoughts.

As I dredge through the thousand scenes that settled into memory this summer, those that resurface most forcefully are often the sort of fragmented encounters that didn't even register as pertinent until we were back on the road.

Early on, for instance, we stopped in Okemah, Okla., Woody Guthrie's hometown. We found no sign of the late native son who wrote "This Land Is Your Land." But we did find a mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant, and as we ate greasy moo shu and egg foo yong, a girl in her late teens came in with a girl of 8 or so.

Intrigued by their body language--tentative glances, brief touches that bespoke deep longing--I approached.

The younger girl wasn't talking, but the older one spoke up: "This is my sister." Their parents were long-since divorced. The little girl had flown in from California that morning. This was the first time they'd been together in five years.

Some conservatives might use that scene to show that the family is like a house of straw, on the verge of being blown to pieces by a wolfish storm of outside forces. Some liberals might offer it as evidence that the nuclear family's inherent flaws are gnawing like termites, ineluctably destroying the repressive institution from within.

I look at these pieces of the American Family Jigsaw Puzzle that we've been constructing, and I see a different picture forming.

At Meeman-Shelby State Park in Tennessee, we met Sherbie and Rick Smith and their kids as they were cooking steaks for breakfast over an open fire. Sherbie works near the family's home outside Memphis. Rick travels extensively, doing maintenance on cell phone facilities. To cut costs, he usually camps in state parks. And if he has to be away on the weekends, Sherbie often packs up the kids and joins him.

"Sometimes it works well and sometimes it doesn't," she said. "Sometimes everything just goes wrong."

"Life happens," said Rick in a gentle Tennessee drawl. "I guess it all works out in the end."

A couple of weeks later, at Laura S. Walker State Park in Georgia, we met Cheryl and Andy James, who sat on lawn chairs with their kids and a stray neighbor boy in a tiki torch-lighted encampment that spread out around their old Winnebago.

Andy gets one week annual vacation, and this was it--fishing and swimming and belting out funny stories at this lush lakeside park within a few alligator lengths of Pogo's famous Okefenokee Swamp.

Like the Smiths, Cheryl and Andy talked about troubled schools, high health care costs and questionable values that make the tough task of child-rearing even tougher.

Then Cheryl smiled and shrugged. "People talk about dysfunctional families," she said. "Well, we're low-functioning, but we're functioning." Then she and Andy laughed loud and hard, and their kids grinned, and I realized that they--like most families--are hanging in there, and somehow that is enough.

Here's one more scene.

We were eating breakfast at Halimah's restaurant in Rifle, Colo., when a woman and her 2-year-old daughter sat at the next table. Our children's eyes darted to the girl's shoes.

"They're her Cinderella slippers," the mother said of the glittering gold wonders. "She wears them everywhere."

"Oh, they're beautiful," said Shauna, our waitress.

The mother's name was Rae Ann Bartells. She is 48, though she looks much younger. Shauna is only 25, though she looked pretty beat that day.

As I eavesdropped, Shauna confessed to Rae Ann that she was exhausted, that she was about to start a college nursing course and the prospect scared her, what with her waitressing and her 5- and 2-year-old children at home.

Rae Ann, a stay-at-home mother, caught Shauna's hand and started talking. She said it had taken her 15 years to finish college; that she chipped away at her education while raising three kids from her first marriage and working jobs that ranged from shoveling soybeans in Indiana to being an executive secretary in Tennessee.

Along the way, she came down with a bone disease that still slams her into a wheelchair every now and then.

She fixed Shauna's gaze. "When I started school, I did it for my children," she said. "I wanted a career that would support them. But I wound up doing it for me. It gave me a lot of confidence."

Shauna listened with appreciation, and little Cinderella listened too. When I thought about that later, I wondered what a little girl dreams of these days, when everyone knows that even princesses aren't guaranteed a happily-ever-after just because they've found a prince.

*

Those scenes and others we came across this summer suggest not that American families are falling apart, but that they remain amazingly resilient--that we take our child-rearing and relationships seriously and are struggling, struggling, struggling to make things work as times change.

Swinging through Chicago, we did what most families do when they travel: We put aside sightseeing for a while and settled down at relatives' homes to eat, joke and reminisce.

When I was a boy, my father's family in Chicago was a source of solace. They were the kin I turned to for assurance that my parents' values weren't as out of sync with reality as life in California sometimes made them seem.

My Chicago grandparents died two decades ago. And last winter Dad's brother Bill passed away. I was beginning to wonder if the Chicago Sipchens were fading into an illusion, and if not, whether my own children would find a place in the big, warm, self-deprecating clan.

Well, my Aunt Mary and Uncle Don threw us a table-sagging welcome, and our kids met my aunts and uncles and cousins and their spouses and girlfriends and children. They played soccer and heard stories, and our shy Em and Ash performed an impromptu violin recital that the whole sprawling clan swore was the finest sound ever to touch eardrums.

Don't think, though, that the Sipchens define harmony the way a sociology text might. My dad and his brother Jim think President Clinton and Hillary are the American family's salvation. Their sisters view the Clintons as emblematic of America's moral decline.

The drop of a phrase like "child care" gets them going like partisan pit bulls. But change the subject to Dad's gout or cousin Jim's impending marriage, and they all shift smoothly into gentle nagging or genuine joy.

The Alaska leg of our trip took us through Juneau, where we spent time with my Aunt Dolly, who, in a family of six, was closest in age to Mom. Dolly now lives in a warm, happy household with my cousin Lisa and Lisa's husband, Guy, and their 7- and 9-year old boys.

As the kids sprawled on the floor fighting over Nintendo and roughhousing like siblings with cousins they had barely known the day before, Dolly pulled out packets of old photos and photocopies from the family Bible. Together, we pored over a family line trailing back to the Constitution, and old photos of my great-great grandfather, a Methodist minister who drove his family west to Oregon in a covered wagon.

What we knew, but didn't discuss much, is how hard the family fought to keep itself going, and not just against British musket balls and Native American arrows but, more recently, against alcoholism and Alzheimer's, drug abuse and mental illness, poverty and divorce.

My family, in other words, is much like the families of everyone we met.

*

One of our last interviews was with Anndee Hochman, a lesbian author whose book, "everyday acts and small subversions" (the Eighth Mountain Press, 1994), is an intriguing examination of people's efforts to break traditional family molds.

Though Hochman has good relations with her parents, her book touches on what I've come to see as a major cultural confusion. At one point Hochman writes of her family's favorite self-image, "one big happy family. Just like all the television shows I watched and worshiped."

I can't tell you how often I've had critics of the traditional family tell me that the Cleavers, the Nelsons and the Cartwrights were a myth. I can't tell you how often I've felt like saying, "Well, duh!"

What I've decided is that the people who are most bitter about the American family, who are most adamant about scrapping the whole institution and starting anew, are the saps who bought the televised fantasy clans and were devastated when their own experiences didn't measure up.

Most of us, though, noticed the difference between our own flawed families and Ozzie and Harriet's when we were rather young. Most of us sighed, screamed, railed and then dug in to make the best of what was obviously the best and only hope we had.

Opportunistic preachers may try to scare their flocks with the illusion that the American family is collapsing. Social engineers may try to parlay our nation's fleeting insecurity into support for their latest crackpot schemes. But in the end, families don't pay them much attention, because they're too busy trying to make things work.

Family is an imperative. It is a force of nature. It is what humanity does.

Does anyone really think that an institution that survived the Holocaust, the slave trade, gulags, civil wars and internment camps can't weather a surge in divorce, women's rights and gay liberation?

The second week of our trip, we attended a Father's Day service at an African Methodist Episcopal church in Oklahoma. A man who had worked hard to help fatherless children in South-Central Los Angeles stood and offered tribute to people he had met since retiring to Oklahoma, where men are fighting similar battles.

"God has a plan for us!" he shouted. "God has a plan!"

Well, I'm a religious skeptic. But this trip has gone so well that sometimes I've wondered if our RV wasn't running on some hidden track.

*

Take our adventures in Alaska. At the last minute, on the very last day of the season, Pam booked us a night at the Denali Wilderness Lodge. We raced down from Fairbanks and loaded into a bus with just six other passengers, then spent the day riding 97 miles into the national park.

A herd of caribou grazed along a broad river plain. Beavers swam across kettle ponds. Ptarmigans, Alaska's state birds, squawked at eye level. An adolescent moose ambled onto our path and defied us with a goofy stare.

Then there were the grizzlies, at least a dozen of them, including a monstrous mother and her three rambunctious cubs, fattening themselves on berries not 50 feet from the bus' open windows, through which our family gazed with wide eyes.

It was a moment two days later, though, that summed things up for me.

It had rained hard all night at Denali's Savage River campground, and in the morning, when the downpour turned to drizzle, Ashley and I decided to bicycle the 12 miles out of the park. Buried in rain gear, we took off pedaling across a bleak, gray landscape. But as soon as we were alone, the sky opened like parting curtains as if to show us--look quickly, please--that the jagged brown mountains had been powdered with the season's first low-elevation snow.

When those holes filled, other clouds lifted and sunbeams spotlighted the tundra--an incredibly rich red, orange, yellow and green autumnal mosaic. The hills were so bright that at first, we had to stop and squint through billows of steamy breath to distinguish background from the thick rainbow fragments arching over the canyons. Then the whole scene vanished again into cold and fog.

Metaphors are tricky, but to me that's a good one.

The world is unruly, dazzling, dangerous, lovely, unpleasant and perfect.

Families are also perfect, because strange as they can be, always changing, mothers-in-law and all (just kidding, Grandma), they're all we've got to negotiate this difficult, fabulous life.

Postscript:

Pam, kids, if you happen to pick this up back in Los Angeles: We did it! Thanks for the best summer of my life. I miss you already.

And remember, kids, if Ms. Conrad, Mrs. Sides or Mrs. McKinney asks, "How was your summer?" don't let on how much fun we had.

Let your teachers and my bosses think it was strictly educational.

ON THE WEB: Visit the Sipchens on the World Wide Web at http:// www.latimes.com/trip/ for maps, journals and sounds from the family's trip.

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