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The Family Is Alive and Kicking

AMERICAN FAMILY: On the road with the Sipchens


DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE, Alaska — 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.

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