Unpretentious essays that explore--sometimes amusingly, sometimes movingly--the patterns and meanings to be found in the mundane details of family life. Like all good essayists, Harvey (English/Young Harris College) searches out the universals underlying the particulars. In this, his first book, the particulars include such solid and homely aspects of life as a community theater production of Annie; a tacky summer house in Vermont; and the sickness of a parent. In the most resonant piece here, ``The Nuclear Family,'' which echoes throughout the text, a family genealogy spurs consideration of the ``nonce rituals''--the invented traditions of the rootless American family. A once-a-year midnight trip to the park for kids to play under the stars; the whistling of ``Dixie'' to announce the first snow and to bring on a barrage of snowballs: These ``decorations of the present'' underline ``the quixotic nature of [the modern family's] resistance, the goofy defenses it has made against oblivion.'' The cherished inventiveness of a child's early groping with language; the evolution of a daughter's dress-up play into a successful stage debut; the middle-aged author's infatuation with a student's heartbreaking youth--all of these unexceptional events allow Harvey to discern pivotal aspects of our lives. Not earthshaking, but offering an enriched appreciation of the small--and often overlooked--things that really matter.