By Lorraine Duffy Merkl
On our family cruise, the floating Merkls did not get into a brawl like “The Floating Feldmans,” the title family of the newest novel by Elyssa Friedland, but that doesn’t mean the trip was always smooth sailing.
Even though those who choose to cruise have volunteered to isolate themselves, sequestered from the outside world, well, as the fictional cruise director Julian says: “The boat brings out the best and worst in people. It’s a lot of togetherness.”“Regrettably,” admitted Feldman matriarch Annette, “I’m one of those people who tried to force togetherness.”
It’s her 70th birthday and her doctor husband David is not in top form, their 48-year-old bachelor son Freddie, who’s always been a handful, is estranged, and their daughter Elise plus her husband Mitch and teen children Rachel and Darius are not quite strangers to her, but might as well be since they don’t have much of a relationship.
When David and Annette announce they are treating everyone, including Freddie’s 27-year-old girlfriend Natasha, to five days and four nights aboard the Ocean Queen to not only celebrate the milestone birthday, but get the family back on track, no one is more shocked than the septuagenarian couple that all are literally and figuratively on board for the trip.
Aside from the two kids who have no choice, the four adults each show up with separate agendas to be revealed to their captive audience with surprising results, such as the aforementioned fist fight on the Starboard Deck that shocked as well as inconvenienced the other three thousand hungry diners.
Not to one-up the Feldmans, but in 2006, twenty members of our family (my husband Neil is the oldest of seven, five are married, four have children) set sail to celebrate my mother- and father-in-law’s 50th anniversary.
Although we never came to physical blows, I finally got to see what it is like when a large family has no choice but to deal with each other.
At the time Neil and I had been married 18 years. I liked his parents, and my siblings-in-laws and their significant others as well as my nieces and nephews, but I had never lived with them.
As an only child, I had always romanticized the “Brady Bunch”-type family. On our very first date, Neil made it clear, “We’re not the Brady Bunch. In fact, the closest thing on TV to our family was a show called “Eight Is Enough.”
Now here we were on this floating tin can as close to living under the same roof with them as I had ever come. Neil had always told me that people may grow up in the same house but still end up very different, developing their own personalities, likes and dislikes, and ways of doing things. I finally had reason to believe him.
My late brother-in-law Tom, notorious for not always showing up when he was supposed to, was first onboard and greeted us with a tropical drink in hand and a look that said, “What took you?” Whereas Neil’s youngest brother Andrew and his wife Kathy, toting their toddler Danny, who were usually early birds were late.
Getting the group photo accomplished was a long day’s journey, as every time someone took his or her place in view of the camera, someone else would wander off.
Whenever it was time to choose a group activity, I could see how everybody maneuvered in their own way to get their way; how people formed alliances; and how sometimes, all it took to get what one wanted was exerting one’s place in the birth order.My mother-in-law had a rule that everybody didn’t have to do everything together, but all had to be present and accounted for at dinner so we could eat together and share our day’s events. At one of those meals, we stood together as one when a passenger in the dining room made a snide comment about how many of us there were and how the staff had to be inconvenienced rearranging tables to accommodate our large group. Let’s just say the person who made the remark didn’t bother us again the rest of the trip.
As a Merkl by marriage, I pretty much went along to get along.
One thing I did though, was deem myself documentary filmmaker, capturing every moment of our time on the high seas. By our last day my sister-in-law Mary (youngest of the original seven) yelled at me, “Enough already with the camera, Lorraine. Enough.”
Because I caught her outburst on film, I made it the penultimate scene of the video, which I edited, screened and gave to everyone. The final shot was the words OK MARY. OK! All was forgiven.
Or as Annette Feldman wisely shares with Julian during their discussion about how trying family sometimes may be, “I like having people that are bound to me in some way.”
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novels “Fat Chick” and “Back to Work She Goes.”
“The boat brings out the best and worst in people. It’s a lot of togetherness.”