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  • Every year since she moved here, our entire family makes the trek from Montreal to visit my sister Iris in Madison.

    The first year, we visited her in a large, two-story apartment in a complex with a swimming pool. By the next, she was already in a house, a sprawling three-bedroom affair with three bathrooms and an office and plenty of room for everyone. Since then, the house has seen the addition of Iris' husband Peter, a finished basement, walk-in closet, granite countertops, new window treatments, some artwork, fresh coats of paint, and, concurrent with Peter's entrance on the scene, a tomahawk, something Iris never tires of reminding him.

    Every year, the composition of the cast changes. There was Peter's arrival, of course. Then, four years ago, our daughter, and last year, our son. Some years my niece and/or my nephew join, and some they stay behind, for work or academic or some other reason. But at the very least our contingent from Montreal includes myself, my husband, my mom, my other sister Ornit, and my brother-in-law John.

    Every year before we come, Iris, who has a very demanding work schedule, starts planning ahead for our visit. The months before our visit will see calls from Iris at random hours of the day asking about such minutiae as the kids' shoe sizes, peanut butter and popcorn preferences, and brand of shampoo. When we arrive, monogrammed towels and assorted clothes in appropriate sizes will lie washed and folded on our bed, an entire cupboard will have been stocked with toys, wrapped and distributed at regular intervals throughout our visit, and the fridge and both freezers will be bulging with food, the currency of love in our family.

    Every year, Iris and Peter take the week off work so they can dutifully trek after us on day-long shopping excursions to Target and trips to the Children's Museum. When we are at home, we all pretty much lounge around in an exhausted haze checking our email while unbeknownst to us Iris is preparing elaborate meals and folding our laundry with preternatural swiftness.

    Each purchase on these trips will see a quick draw of wallets, like gunslingers in the Wild West, with those quickest on the draw earning the privilege of paying for everyone, as the recipients of their generosity jostle them brandishing cash at a clearly befuddled cashier. That is, until someone, probably Iris, hit on the ingenious but sly method of paying unobserved by, say, taking the waiter aside during a meal under the pretense of going to the bathroom, and surreptitiously handing him her credit card. In such cases, the only recourse for the others is to berate the offender for their oppressive hospitality and castigate them as hopeless. The thanks is implied.

    This folly probably hit its nadir during our current visit when Iris pressed $100 in cash in my hands like it was a rescue puppy and earnestly assured me it was weighing heavily on her and would I do her a favor by taking it off her hands and treating myself to a shopping spree. It's gotten so that now the act of reaching into my purse to pay for something has taken on harrowing dimensions, something to be executed with a spare economy of motion accompanied by tense alertness, like a guard checking enemy satchels at a military checkpoint.

    This year's visit was supposed to include all the usual suspects, plus Peter's college-age son Daniel along with Ornit and John's kids and their respective significant others, who were all booked in an apartment near downtown boasting its own organic produce garden. Then John got sick at the last minute with what we all thought was pneumonia, but turned out to be endocarditis. So it's just us this year - Alexei, me, our kids, Iris and Peter, and, briefly, Daniel, who instead of yukking it up with organic produce and, I suspect, beer, organic or otherwise, with his cousins, spent a lot of time gamely playing dollhouse with my daughter.

    John is in the hospital undergoing treatment and awaiting surgery, and we will be leaving today so we can be there for it. Although we are in close contact, we miss them, and think of him frequently, and look forward to skirmishing with them in Madison next year when it comes time to pick up the tab.
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