We merge our families into one rented house every August, and then drive off in different directions two weeks later. For over twenty years we've been spending our vacation with Bill and Mary. We all know Bill will pack food processor, fresh basil and tomatoes from his garden, and more spices than we'll ever use. Mary will throw in the ice cream machine to give her an excuse to buy more blackberries at the local farmer's market. I bring the pepper mill, lemon zester, and enough bulbs of heirloom garlic for a lobster pot full of marinara sauce.
We split cooking responsibilities and babysitting. My daughter Amy becomes the middle child between their two daughters, providing both companionship and sibling rivalry; after vacation she stops asking for a baby sister and is content to be an only child.
Our politics are radically different, causing vociferous debates on the porch after the kids have gone to bed. We eat and drink too much, and we even slowly tire of each other's habits -- but just a bit. It's time to pack.
Bill is packed hours before our 10AM check-out, while we lag behind. Cars overloaded, we delay the parting by taking photos of reluctant children who are cranky and tired from too many late nights, and teary about saying good-bye. Quickly we retreat to our respective cars and avoid thinking about another year before we'll meet again.
There have been other friendships that didn't survive vacations. The ones who didn't throw out the garbage, or decided to go grocery shopping for dinner at 10PM when toddlers (and their parents) are used to eating before 6.
Bill and Mary were compatible from the start. We began by sharing a weekend house in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts. My husband and I played tennis while Bill complained, albeit affectionately, about Mary dragging him to every tourist attraction in Massachusetts. They were the suburban mice and we the city ones, and they made fun of us for bringing our laundry up every Friday night. It was easier to throw in six washes in the basement of a farm house than in the basement of an apartment building. They went to sleep early and never woke us in the morning, and there was always a pot of coffee waiting when we lazily got up.
The summer we switched to the Catskills, Mary announced she was pregnant. That was the Summer Rental House From Hell-a yard full of poison ivy, a well that went dry, a landlord who absconded with our $2,000 security deposit. Mary was relieved in October when Jane was born with ten fingers and toes. "I was afraid to drink the water in that house," she confessed.
Next summer we moved to New York's Columbia County, but could a childless couple get along with a baby when we needed to chill out on weekends? Bill and Mary kindly rushed out early mornings with baby Jane, to let her crawl through the gardens in Hancock Shaker Village, leaving us time for quiet relaxation.
Our baby was conceived in that house on a Saturday morning when rain drenched the tennis courts. But Mary's career transported them to Washington D.C., and our relationship changed to two weeks in August.
In Bethany Beach, Virginia, we watched TV in shock the night Princess Di's car crashed. And the house we rented sight-unseen in the Blue Ridge Mountains was incredibly spacious but not air-conditioned during an unprecedented heat wave. We had to keep every door wide open all night long, and I never slept, worrying that bears would come in from the woods (we were actually bothered more by mosquitoes).
We stopped moving around and settled into one house for the past fourteen years in Chautauqua, a 145-year-old arts and education community near Lake Erie. We accommodate to each other's diets (from Weight Watchers' stints to lowering cholesterol). If an adult is napping, the others do not disturb. We have driven each other miles to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for pink eye or to visit a local pediatrician to remove stitches from a tiny chin. Our three daughters are like cousins: Jane, Amy, and Lizzie have shared everything: first bike rides without training wheels, making pizza dough, wearing each other's hand-me-down summer outfits, which always grow small as the days grow shorter.
"Maybe we should go to Rome next August," Bill suggests.
"And give up Chautauqua?" everyone shrieks.
We return to Chautauqua the first week of August once more, the kids eagerly planning their annual bake sale on the brick walk in front of our house.
What will happen when our kids are gone? Will we still be here on the porch, helping each other with the crossword puzzle or shucking corn? As empty nesters, will we spread our travel wings wider? No, we continue to rendezvous every August, even when Bill and Mary have to leave early to drive Jane to college in Ohio, and two years later we do the same, headed for Pennsylvania.
Now we're loading our cars again, remembering how my daughter once complained that Jane and Lizzie had a TV in their SUV for their eight-hour trip home, while our family sedan was just "plain old boring."
We take one long last look at the porch we have sat upon, chatting, laughing, lending books, planning menus, watching dramatic thunderstorms, soothing tears from bicycle falls. Empty bottles are waiting for the recycling truck, and we are being recycled as well: back to work and to school, away from our housemates and friends.
We take a photo of all of us on the porch together, every year, two blended families chronicling our kids maturing, our hair graying, all of us smiling in the bittersweet knowledge that we had a great time together but another vacation is ending.
"Let's promise to meet somewhere in the middle this winter," Bill and Mary suggest optimistically. They are now living even farther away from us, in Virginia.
"Yes, we'll pick a weekend," I promise. But years of soccer schedules and homework and sleepovers once again dominated our lives, and now all of our kids are off to college. Besides...we are the best of summer friends. Our families' reunion will occur once again next August...when we'll all be fresh, and eager, and slightly shy in the beginning...but just for a few brief minutes.