Chris Arbutina | Beach trip brings out the best in families

July 14, 2013 

Bingo night just wasn’t cutting it.

As the de facto “cruise director” for my family’s annual beach trip, I’ve cycled through Beach Olympics, marathon rounds of Left-Right-Center, a pirate treasure hunt and the aforementioned bingo. Depending upon which family member older than 13 that you talk to, they will describe, with a roll of the eyes and a facial expression most often associated with, say, opening the lid of a particularly ripe garbage can, said activities as “torture,” “embarrassing” and “ridiculous.”

I call them fun.

What’s not to like about Olympic-style games held on scorching sand with a torch — a paper towel tube, various foil wrappers and “flames” crafted out of plastic mesh bags that once held oranges and onions — held proudly aloft during the opening ceremony? As for the games themselves, mostly relay races involving fishing buckets, pingpong balls, beach pails, sand shovels and an assortment of hats, clown noses and plastic leis: The various events have, in recent years, brought the bulk of the Olympians, with a median age of 53, to their knees, fearing sprained ankles, heat exhaustion and heart attacks.

What could possibly go wrong with a pirate treasure hunt? Nothing, until the year in which two of the scallywags (on all other occasions known as “nephews”) came close to killing each other on the shore over such precious booty as rubber balls filled with floating plastic eyeballs and glitter (the fight to near death was over the blue glitter ball since she who collected and buried all of that treasure forgot the No. 1 rule of piracy: All treasure should be identical, the better to divvy up without bloodshed).

When the treasure hunt devolved into a scene out of “Lord of the Flies,” I decreed that pirates would never again darken these shores. And they haven’t.

With the void in the entertainment schedule have come the annual pool party and bingo night.

The pool party has less to do with the pool and more to do with the party. And the party is little more than a smorgasbord of junk food: Everybody gets to pick out a favorite snack during a trip to the store. The resulting spread has included cheese corn curls, canned potato chips and crackers that, according to the box, taste like chicken. In the interest of family togetherness, the bounty is to be shared with everyone else, which, of course, means poolside hoarding is rampant.

Bingo night boasts useless, “fabulous” prizes that have included novelty sunglasses that come with tags advising that they not be worn in the sun and obscure, off-brand personal care products, which lead to cries of embarrassment from the nephews who are on the verge of needing such things (last year’s tongue scraper is still being talked about).

Having more than exhausted those possibilities may be why the round box with the red gingham wrapping the sides like a paper tablecloth caught my eye.

If the red-and-white checks weren’t cute enough, the label consisted of the image of a table setting with the words “The Family Dinner Box of Questions” served up like a blue-plate special. Inside the box: 82 circular cards, printed with a picture of double-crust apple pie on the front and questions “to create great conversations” on the reverse.

Sold.

During 30-plus years of beach trips and family get-togethers, with family members ages 10 to 82 gathered around, I’ve watched table talk devolve into silliness and hand-held electronic games for the nephews and listened as political differences and distance stifled discussion among the adults.

Within minutes of plunking down $9.95, I had buyer’s remorse.

This, I thought … my family is going to hate this.

Which, of course, only made me more determined to play the game.

The first night I set the table, placing the box squarely in the middle alongside the salt and pepper shakers and butter dish.

Not surprisingly, the first questions weren’t from the game but about the game. I explained how it would work: Each night, we’d pick two questions and go around the table. There was only one rule: You had to listen to everyone’s answers (which considering most nights there were 12 people at the table made for some long mealtimes).

Simple.

What is the best job in the world and why? What job would you never want?

Best job: video game designer, so said the 13-year-old gaming wannabe.

Worst job: the U.S. president, said my 81-year-old father, an avid newspaper reader and History Channel fan.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Recent school test scores, according to nephew No. 2, the 12-year-old.

“My children and their families,” said my mom.

What is your earliest memory?

The 1936 western Pennsylvania flood during which her father walked her across a bridge to safety in a nearby town, remembered my aunt.

What is your biggest fear or phobia?

Water, said my one sister-in-law, who finds herself in the unfortunate situation of vacationing each year in a place that boasts a pool and an ocean.

There were funny questions and serious ones. There were several that we laughed over and a few that brought tears. But most of them led to interesting insights into some of the people we know the best and care about the most.

Simple questions, so simple that I wondered why I hadn’t thought of this on my own (and was humbled to realize that for lots of reasons I hadn’t and probably never would have). And, night after night, the string of who-what-why-when-how prompted thoughtful, honest, heartfelt answers.

Using one word, how would you describe your family?

My “10-and-three-quarters” nephew didn’t hesitate.

“Awesome.”

Bingo!

Chris Arbutina writes a monthly column for the CDT.

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