I was never ashamed to curl up in Mom’s lap. Even when I reached my full height of 5 feet 5 ½ inches. She still stroked my hair with my head in her lap. I could always count on that. She and her second husband had a TV in their bedroom, and they went to sleep every night with the dulcet tones of Johnny Carson laughing about beaming from beautiful downtown Burbank.
She wrote in her bedside diary that upon her death, we were instructed to destroy that diary, so we did. Mom must have known that the anger she was venting in that last bedside journal was not the real essence. I wish I had the rest of her writings – they wound up in the hands of my stepfather, who has isolated himself from a world he fears. Though usually I’m not a material girl, I tend to hoard memories and photographs not valuables. There is this memento that I would be bereft to lose – her graduation pen, black tip, gold barrel. Engraved on the top piece that clicks into place both fore and aft is my mother’s chosen name: TERA. It came in a velveteen-lined case from the Cross Pen company. It has a twin that twists to open – that ballpoint pen is for the keeping of accounts. The Writer’s Pen has a felt tip. It feels right in my hand, as I write about my aversion to camping. Mom was so shocked when I stated loudly and dramatically that I hated camping. As a matter of fact, I went down on one knee, shook my fist at the air and proclaimed in my best Scarlett O’Hara that “I will nevah go campin’ agin!”
It was the ticks. No, it was the long cold walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night. No, it was the washing of the dishes made difficult without a proper sink. And my brother and sister, who were lousy company in the city, and similarly morose now, sharing a tent that we had to put up ourselves, arguing the whole time. Preparation was a chaotic rush, dust motes awakened jostling in a light shaft, like us.
The family tent, sleeping bags, ground cushions, the Coleman stove, the Coleman lantern, the red metal clad chipped cooler requiring two people on opposite sides to carry it. fresh underwear, hiking boots, socks t-shirts, and it does no good to bring books, I can’t read them in the car, that makes me nauseous. Oh man, Pepto Bismol and duffle bags that both her Navy husbands brought from their service. Valerie exuding sighs, Chris oblivious, just trudging through it. Mom, so excited to be “getting out in nature” and Roland packing easel and paints and me, knowing I would be smashed up against the car door, gulping air like a wounded puppy, trying not to throw up. Getting there, to The Redwoods, Yosemite, unpacking in the dusty stillness, driving tent stakes, setting the table, paper plates but always chipped enamel cups that had to be washed, by me usually, because everybody else had hiked away from camp and I remember how greasy the dishes remained.
The tent was a canvas monstrosity that you had to zip all the way up and all the way down every time you entered. And no matter how thick the sleeping bags were, the ground was still cold and hard in these makeshift beds. Couldn’t my parents see that these nice people in Yosemite Valley had built hotels and motels and cabins nearby just so we did not have to build them ourselves? It was a fifteen-minute drive to the Oakland Redwoods from our house if you wanted to commune with nature, they had even gotten married in the Redwood Bowl, with peace pipes and organic bulgur salads, and music under the trees, and hadn’t they gotten over that phase yet?
Many many years later, I photo safaried in Africa. There, we dwelt in Canvas Villas with running water, copper bathtubs, verandas, indoor and outdoor showers, stationery to write home with, desks and couches, hot water for bush tea, fresh towels folded in the shapes of elephants. No phones, no internet, that was ok – our wakeup call was one of the guides standing outside the steps up to our front cloth door – saying “knock knock” – not actually knocking of course, because the door was not made of wood, just saying “knock knock” until we mumbled back. Every month, at least once, I want to go back to Botswana so much it aches. I think, though, that my mother would have said that I did love camping after all, and laughed and laughed and laughed.