Mom's putting the birthday girl's highchair in place. Nervous excitement buzzes with the growing chatter of two dozen children and adults.
Redheaded Paige is plopped into her seat, grinning broadly, ready to be the center of attention on her first birthday.
And she is, across a thousand miles and two living rooms.
As Paige is served a chunk of pink frosted birthday cake as big as her head and everybody sings Happy Birthday in Dallas, her grandparents and great-grandmother in Seminole are part of the fun and can be seen and heard in Texas, singing along.
Paige giggles and grabs her cake with both hands, delightedly smearing her face.
Bob Jodal, 60, his wife, Karen, 59, and her 84-year-old mother, Pat Gloeckner, shared in this family milestone this month, keeping in touch with remarkable technology that's not limited to kids anymore. They use Skype, an easy-to-use online video conference service that has enriched their lives.
Technology can only do so much, though. Paige's father, Scott Taylor, is so tall that he is seen only as a yellow shirt in the computer monitor. And there's the matter of that cake.
"Hey, Jen," Bob asks his daughter and Paige's mom, "would you have Scott fax us a piece of cake?"
Across the United States and around the world, technology is bringing families and friends closer than they've been since multigenerational households were the norm. Not everyone is using videocameras (commonly called Webcams), Skype, AOL Instant Messenger and Gmail voice and video to communicate, but a growing number of grandparents and extended family and friends are reconnecting and sharing their day-to-day lives in ways unimaginable even five years ago.
Hello, social networking
You don't have to use a videocamera to invite your friends for a visit online.
Chances are, you have at least a friend or two, or a high school sweetheart or a long-lost cousin, waiting to be discovered.
Facebook, the dominant social network, now has 200 million users, as reported by the online trade magazine the Industry Standard. The fastest-growing demographic is women over 55, according to insidefacebook.com, which tracks the service for developers and marketers. On the Facebook site, you can view and share photos and videos with family, chat and write with people who you "friend," and keep up with just about everything folks choose to share. How was Jamal's soccer game? Did Grandma's famous pot roast recipe work? Now you know, within minutes.
Juliette Powell, author of 33 Million People in the Room (Financial Times Press), a book about social networking, was not always the leading authority in her family.
"My mom lives in Montreal and she got to Facebook ahead of me," says Powell, who is in her early 30s. "She started connecting with people based on affinity rather than geography," she says of her mother, in her late 60s.
"She freaked me out a year ago when she got 14 Valentine's messages from gentlemen all over the world. I got none! She showed me it wasn't child's play."
Powell says it's a matter of one's comfort with technology. "There are older people that have always been curious about exploiting technology," she says.
Ginny Moloy, 62, is a first-year winter resident of Florida in Lithia who still calls Salem, N.H., home. She and her husband, Dick, 63, are parents of four, one in Florida, three back home, plus four grandchildren.
"We use e-mail, Skype and Gmail video to stay in touch," Moloy says.
This is the first time the Moloys have been separated from their children for an extended time. It's a tight-knit family, and the distance has caused some stress.
"I was chatting with my youngest, Tim, this past February and got the sense something wasn't right. I clicked to add video and instantly I could see he didn't look right. He was feeling all alone at his birthday time. Next thing you knew I told my husband and we had a ticket for him to come to Florida the next weekend. And we had a big birthday party. You can't communicate that in a letter. First of all, it takes five days for a letter to get there."
Friends again, but too brief
Morning radio personality Jack Harris, 67, of WFLA-AM 970 in Tampa, learned that social networking can be bittersweet. An old friend, Brian James, 48, added him as a friend on Facebook one day. James, whose voice on WFLA reminds listeners throughout the day to what station they're tuned, moved from Tampa to Phoenix several years ago. The friends drifted apart.
"I don't know how long it had been since I'd seen or heard from him," Harris says. "Then he popped up on Facebook and he said, 'I'm coming to Tampa.' We messaged back and forth about having a beer when he got here. The next day, (Harris' co-host) Tedd Webb said, 'Brian died.'
"Facebook gave me an opportunity to hook up that final time … and thank God for it."
For older folks who have computers but are reluctant to dip a toe into Facebook, MySpace, Skype and other online social services, most of which are free, it doesn't hurt to have someone show you the way.
Curious about the Web site that so fascinated her 31-year-old son, Pam McGinnis of Gulfport asked him what he was doing because it looked so intriguing.
"He said, 'It's my MySpace page.' And I said, 'I need to get one of those.' " Her son retorted: "You're too old for that!"
That's all she needed to hear. The next day, McGinnis, 56, set up her own MySpace page. Like Facebook, MySpace is a social networking site, and it boasts 130 million members, as noted by the Industry Standard.
McGinnis now has 60 friends across the United States and as far away as Germany. Her best friends on MySpace, ironically, turned out to be in her own back yard.
"I got a message on MySpace from a nurse named Dena who lived in Florida. She asked if I attended Pinellas Park Junior High and graduated from Dixie Hollins High School," McGinnis recalls. "I am a little leery about answering questions online, but once she gave me her maiden name, I knew her immediately. Her sister and I were good friends and she gave me her number. I contacted her, and in the meantime she contacted two of our other friends and we met for dinner. We had such a great time! We took up right where we left off."
McGinnis and her friends Lana Rosete, 58, Judy Boobyer, 56, and Sandy Paree, 57, meet at least once a month for a Saturday night dinner. "Rekindling the relationship with these girls has been well worth it. We'll finish out the rest of our lives being friends," she says. "People in restaurants say, 'We want to sit with you guys because you're having so much fun!' "
Beverly Caravella of Tampa, a mother of six and grandmother of seven, found her own unique point of entry. A Mac user, she pays $99 a year for access to weekly tutoring sessions at the Apple Store at International Plaza in Tampa. One week a few months back, Caravella, 75, asked someone at the store to help her establish a Facebook account. There's been no slowing her down.
"I saw my brother get on Facebook," she says. "I said, 'What is that?' I thought it would be a wonderful way to stay in touch with my grandchildren in Tacoma."
Caravella has also reconnected with her father's side of the family, originally from Tampa, and her mother's side, which is based in New Orleans. "I find it a wonderful tool to get short messages. It's been half and half, me finding somebody and other people finding me."
School years revisited
Sandy and Phil Hayford, 59 and 62, respectively, have worked at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg since 1980. She's the administrative assistant to the athletic director and he's the longtime football coach and former athletic director. As such, they've met and developed relationships with thousands of students and parents over the years.
"When I stepped down as athletic director, one of my new responsibilities became alumni liaison," Phil says. "In the first two weeks on Facebook, I made contact with kids I hadn't heard from in a long time. And it snowballs. They say, 'This is somebody you may know.'
"One kid who played football for me, I hadn't heard from him since he graduated 20 years ago," he says. "He mentioned his boys and said, 'Every day, I'm telling my boys things I heard from Coach Hayford.' It makes you feel good."
Sandy received a friend request from the once-young man who was her prom date. "I hadn't heard from him since high school. He's married, has a couple kids and grandchildren — just like me. Some of my best friends live up North and aren't on it, so I'm trying to convince them to try it. It's fast; that's what I like. A phone call can take an hour; I can tell everyone what's going on with me or find out what's going on with them in minutes."
Bill Israel, 74, is a retired Honeywell engineer who can't get enough gadgets. He has a 24-inch cinema-screen iMac in his home office in South Pasadena plugged in to a cable TV connection using a device called eyeTV. So while keeping up with e-mail or working on his family ancestry Web site, he watches CNN or other news. He can play any one of the thousands of songs on his iPod Touch via WiFi anywhere in his home. ("Usually much too loud," jokes his wife of 49 years, Sally.) He's a fan of YouTube, the Internet video hub, and plays clips on his 52-inch widescreen TV. Though he uses Skype to stay in contact with a cousin in Ajijic, Mexico, Israel hasn't caught the social networking fever.
"I feel like I'm as stretched out as I can go. I'm already networked in other ways with everyone I want to be."
Maybe Israel needs to "friend" the Jodals of Seminole, the folks who celebrated their granddaughter's birthday in Texas.
Last Christmas, the Jodals were entertaining a houseful of friends and neighbors when the phone rang. The computer, actually — it was their son, Jim, calling to say hello from Dallas. The distinctive Skype ring got everyone's attention. Seeing Jim magically appear to wish Mom and Dad a merry Christmas stopped the party cold.
"When the call ended, the neighbors all said, 'We can do this?' " Bob Jodal recalls. "They got so excited!"
Bob Andelman is an author and hosts the "Mr. Media Interviews" podcast available on mrmedia.com and iTunes.