HARRISBURG _ ``How long is Pennsylvania?'' asked Buddy as we began our fourth hour of driving through it.
``Too darned long,'' said Uncle Chet, who was at the wheel of a Toyota van.
``I'd like to shrink it, put the whole state through a dryer,'' I said from a second-row seat as we crossed the Susquehanna River on I-83.
``It does seem to go on forever, but parts of it are beautiful,'' said Alice, who sat in the other bucket seat up front, absorbed in the view.
``Are we almost in Maryland?'' Buddy leaned back to ask his mother, who rode in the third seat with our 16-year-old daughter.
``Almost,'' said Hon.
``How long till we get there?'' Buddy asked.
``Less than an hour,'' she told him. ``But then we'll have two hours in Maryland before we get to Karen and Sue's.''
``I can hardly wait,'' the third-grader said.
``Me, too,'' his sister said.
``Is Pennsylvania bigger than New York?'' the boy asked.
``New York's bigger," said Uncle Chet, ``but it doesn't seem it because we live near the edge. With Pennsylvania, we're crossing the whole state.''
``I know Alaska's the biggest state,'' Buddy confided.
``What's second?'' the driver asked.
``Texas,'' Buddy said confidently, for he likes geography.
``How about third?'' asked Uncle Chet, his eyes in the mirror, then back to the highway for we were moving fast.
We were on our way to say goodbye to a beloved aunt, fated to fall to cancer, her body slipping away, her mind focused on everything she had to do from her bedside. She had faces to see, voices to hear, hands to touch the last time; and for some _ those who needed it _words of guidance, too.
We knew what was coming and the silences were somber as we rode along in the van, sifting through memories of being with her and Sue, but at the same time, life went on and we remarked on the scenery, the traffic, the state of the roads, the antics of Joe Lieberman toadying to insurance companies, the cold-blooded Republicans, the spineless Democrats and all the kooks in the Greens.
``I don't know,'' Buddy said.
``It's California,'' said his sister.
``I believe she's right,'' Uncle Chet said .
``She's right,'' I said.
``How are their laws out there?'' he asked me.
``They couldn't stop Prop 8,'' I said.
``True,'' he said as we raced along in a long parade cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles going well above the speed limit, for it was only an odd car doing just 65, and they were like buoys to a water skier, a few obstacles to snake around.
``It all comes down to property,'' I said.
``Property, security, benefits, insurance, anything you stand to gain as a spouse. With marriage, you're better off, no matter who's married," Uncle Chet said.
``Hurray for marriage,'' Alice said.
``That's the dividing line,'' I said.
``That's the battle line,'' Hon said.
``If you're married, your union is special, maybe not spiritually, but definitely legally,'' Uncle Chet said. ``So if you want to marry but can't, and meet all the standards of marriage, save gender, can the law discriminate against you on that basis?''
``The answer is yes,'' I said, ``backed by popular demand.''
``Your anatomy determines your rights?'' he asked quizzically, glancing sidelong at his wife of nearly three years.
``Keep your eyes on the road, dear,'' she cautioned on the outskirts of Harrisburg, Pa.
Cooperstown News Bureau Reporter Tom Grace is traveling with his Uncle Chet, who he says is imaginary. Grace's column appears every other week.