After my mother died in November I felt closer than ever to my siblings. After all, we shared a common loss. So in February when my siblings were discussing a summer family campout I made a decision I wouldn’t normally have considered. After talking to my husband and children and discovering they were, indeed, on board with the idea of attending a campout for the first time ever, and were, in fact, excited by the prospect, I paid an exorbitant (for me) amount of money for two nights at a cabin where the campout was taking place. And then I alternately anticipated and dreaded the trip for the next five months, mostly excited, but not sure what to expect. The Kenyon family was going camping.
For a solid week before our trip I piled necessities against the front door of our house, a list on my clipboard keeping track of everything. There is an extraordinary amount of “stuff” a family of six needs o bring with them for a weekend; bedding for five, six pillows, six towels, changes of clothing for everyone, bug-spray, bandages, shampoo, body wash, toothpaste, deodorant, toothbrushes, and tennis shoes for walking, paper plates and cutlery. And then, of course, there is the food. I followed the advice of a seasoned camper and wrote down how many meals there would be and the amount necessary to feed six people before I went shopping. I spent $100 just on food and drinks for two days.
But, it was all part of the adventure, part of the fun, and that last morning I found myself excited. Finally, I would be one of them; the campers.
It didn’t bode well that we started out crammed in a van that lacks air conditioning on a hot and humid morning. We made the best of it; laughing and imagining ourselves a family from yesteryear or a modern day Griswold family vacation. Even the road detours we encountered became a part of the adventure. When we arrived at the cabin we were pleasantly surprised. It was beautiful and spacious with a separate kitchen area and even a full-size refrigerator.
The blast of cold air from the air-conditioner thrilled the children and they took turns turning the thermostat even lower. Since it was already paid for we could make it as cold as we wanted, they reasoned. I played housewife for an hour, unpacking suitcases and coolers, putting sheets on the beds, and filling the bathroom shelves with toiletries and towels. My brother and sister-in-law had served as a welcoming committee, bringing us a scavenger hunt list and suggesting we come down to the group campsite for our meals instead of starting our own fire. We were eager for the family festivities to begin.
Our first campout meal consisted of wraps made from meat we cooked in foil. Borrowing a grill basket from another camper, we vowed right then and there to purchase one for ourselves for cooking on our backyard fire pit. As we pulled our borrowed camp chairs around the fire, we had glimpses into the “fun” of camping; delicious food, games, and talking and laughing around a fire.
And then it started to rain.
And slowly, almost imperceptibly, everything began to slide downhill. My 8-year-old didn’t like the sight or the smell of the outdoor bathrooms and vowed to “hold it” rather than use them. The 8-year-old who was on medication for a urinary tract infection. I laughed while I helped her go behind a tree, but stopped laughing when she insisted she wanted to go back to the cabin. She was getting wet and her cousin playmate had already gone back to his. I wanted to stay and enjoy the legendary fun around the campfire. More than that, I wanted my two teens to be able to enjoy it. This trip had been planned partly as a “last hurrah” for our Matthew, who would be turning 18 in October. He’d never gone on a family vacation and he’d seemed excited about the prospect. One of my sisters agreed to deliver my older three to our cabin when she went back to hers. At least they would enjoy those magic campground moments, even if I couldn’t. Back at the cabin, I got Abby settled in and was nearly asleep myself when the other children returned. The bed was hard, so hard it made my shoulder hurt lying on my side.
“Tomorrow it will be better. Abby won’t be so tired. Tomorrow it won’t rain,” I thought optimistically.
And it didn’t. Tomorrow dawned brighter, sunnier, and hotter. A lot hotter. I woke up before everyone else, made a pot of coffee, and went on the deck with my legal pad. “Bring a book. Bring your writing,” others had told me. “Enjoy your free time and relax.” Only the children stumbled out of bed about then, one after another, not having slept comfortably themselves. There would be no writing time. That’s okay, I decided. I offered Matt a cup of coffee. There would be quiet hours in the hot afternoon when I could read or write. We made it to the campground in time to play a tournament ladder ball game against my sister and brother-in-law. I missed my one chance for a walk with sisters during that time, something I had looked forward to, but it would have been difficult to choose between the game and a walk. The two other cabin dwellers had left so we were the only ones cooking outside; this time some hot dogs and some foil-wrapped seasoned chicken and potatoes I had prepared and partially cooked beforehand at the cabin. We sat alone at a picnic table and ate what turned out to be another delicious meal. The sun beat down on us and I looked up and noticed my 17-year-old wasn’t eating. He just shrugged his shoulders when I asked why he wasn’t imbibing in the food. My siblings and their spouses were seated in lawn chairs underneath a shade tree. There wasn’t much laughing or camaraderie going on that I could see. They just looked hot. One sibling had gone shopping with her husband. We promised to return for the dessert buffet planned at 2:00 and went back to the cabin. Matthew made hot dogs on the stove top then, while Emily started drawing and Katie and Abby watched television.
“This is just like being home, only we are in a smaller space and don’t have our things and can’t get away from each other,” someone commented and we laughed, but then I wondered. I wasn’t having that much fun. Maybe it wasn’t only me. We looked at each other tentatively. Who would dare to say it first?
“I wanted you to have fun,” I said to Matthew.
“I wanted you to have fun,” he responded.
We good-naturedly bantered back and forth, wondering aloud how we could save face and just give up and go home. How could we get our money back?
“What if we said there was a bat in our cabin and we were afraid we’d been bitten and had to get shots…”
David heard us.
“Aren’t you having fun?” Matt, Emily, Katie and I all said it at the same time; a resounding “No,” surprising ourselves and each other with the dawning realization.
“We should have known better,” Matt said, “We aren’t that kind of family.”
We knew Angie, one of the other sisters in a cabin,was having fun. Her adult children were joining her soon.
Maybe if we invited Michael, it would be more fun, Emily and Matt decided, and then sent him a text message.
We returned to the group campsite for a glorious and decadent dessert buffet at 2:00. I carefully chose food that would be the least corrosive to my stomach. Still, it cramped and recoiled in horror at the onslaught of sugar in the heat of the day. With warning gurgles that signaled a desperate need for a bathroom, we hurriedly left without a backward glance, wondering if anyone even
The long afternoon stretched before us. Could I write or read? I pulled out a notebook and tried writing at the table, encouraging David to take a nap. He’d gotten so little sleep the night before.
I hated that he had to sleep on a hard bed, walk over rough terrain at the group campground in the dark to reach a bathroom, but he never once complained. Of all of us, he seemed to be enjoying the experience the most and Abby loved the cabin, continually asking if we could stay a week. When my sister Angie called and said the time was going so fast that she knew it wouldn’t be long enough, I confessed the ugly truth and responded that it couldn’t go fast enough for me, instantly regretting the comment when even through the cell connection I sensed her recoil.
“Just wait until tonight, around the campfire. Then you’ll have fun,” she encouraged, and I wondered how that would happen if Abby pleaded to go back to the cabin again. She’d taken a walk with Emily and came back with a beet-red face and the beginnings of a migraine. I knew how quickly those headaches could spiral out of control.
My brother John, the camp host, stopped by and I told him the truth too. There was no use pretending we were having fun. David assured John we were having fun just as I shook my head and laid the sad and sorry truth at John’s feet.
“I’m sorry,” John said, and he meant that he was sorry we’d paid so much for a cabin and weren’t enjoying it. But it wasn’t the cabin or the money.
“It’s my fault. I had unmet expectations. I’m not sure it matters whether we are here or not,” and when he left, I felt bereft. I missed him. He really did understand.
When the kids retreated to one bedroom and David to another I sat at the table alone, feeling the heavy weight of failure on my shoulders. I had failed as a camper. Failed at providing wonderful camping memories for my children. Failed at fun.
Matthew and Emily walked out of the bedroom and seeing my face, rushed over to hug me. It was Matt who convinced me to stay that night and make the best of it. “We’ll have fun. I promise.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon laying on the big bed and talking about unmet expectations, family, camping, heat and humidity and figuring out how this experience could have been more fun.
“With Dan, Michael, Rachel or Beth and Ben visiting,” we decided in unison. Their older siblings made everything more fun.
If we were more experienced campers and had brought the right amount of food. By then the pop and bottled water was gone, and I’d underestimated the amount of snack food we’d need.
Lolling on the bed we talked for an hour and then the talking moved to another room while I fell asleep to the sound of cards slapping on the table; David playing card games with the kids. When I woke up 20 minutes later, the kids returned to the bed with me and taught me how to text with my phone.
We miss you and wish you were here I texted to Michael, and he immediately texted back who is this, not ever having seen a text message from his mother.
Your mom camping can you come I laboriously wrote back.
I work all week in the heat and don’t want to drive that far for more heat was the reply.
I couldn’t blame him.
We headed to the campsite that evening with a renewed determination to have fun.
Even if it killed us.
“How is your camping experience going?” my sister Pat asked and I saw a look of disbelief cross over the faces of the nearby campers when I answered, “I never want to do it again.” They couldn’t understand my attitude. Surely they could convince me of the merits of camping. Their sales pitches fell on deaf ears.
“You could go shopping. You like shopping.”
I can go shopping without camping.
“I think you get out of it what you put into it.”
So it was my own fault I wasn’t enjoying it? Yet I had seriously tried to have fun.
“I like getting away from the house and not having responsibilities.”
If spending an hour pre-cooking chicken and peeling potatoes and making beds and sitting by a child while they fell asleep wasn’t a responsibility, what was it? I’d just traded home responsibilities with camping responsibilities. And I missed my home. Missed my usual activities. Didn’t want to get away from my usual activities. I hadn’t written in two days and felt like I was going mad.
“My kids aren’t having fun. And if they don’t have fun, I don’t have fun. I wanted this for them,” I attempted to explain.
One of them made a motion, as if spanking a child.
So it was my children’s fault I wasn’t having fun?
I contemplated that possibility for a moment. I could imagine being alone in that cabin and writing for hours. I could see being there with my husband for an overnight getaway. But the beds wouldn’t be more comfortable, the heat would still bother me and my expectations would still have been unrealistic. I wasn’t sure I could explain this to the expectantly waiting family members who shared such a passion for camping.
Maybe it’s just the heat, I finally conceded.
Or things would be different if we had a camper instead of a cabin.
If our children were older.
Maybe it would have been better if at least one of our adult children had come with us.
Or maybe camping just wasn’t our thing.
We sat around the campfire that night and I got an inkling again of the fun that camping can bring. I laughed with my siblings. I danced around the fire. I helped hold a wish lantern while it was lit and watched it sail above the campground. When sleep deprivation and the oncoming train wreck of a headache made Abby insistent we return to the cabin (and not her Dad alone, as he offered, but of course ME) I wasn’t sure I was ready to leave. I didn’t want to miss anything, and I definitely didn’t want my other kids to miss any magical campfire moments. I left them in
the capable hands of other campers who would get them back to the cabin. David and I left before anyone else did, despite the late hour, but I decided I was fine with it. I liked the campfire atmosphere but I was getting a headache myself. Once we had Abby settled in I looked over at my trooper of a husband who had given his rightful place in bed to his youngest child who just wanted to fall asleep holding her mother’s hand, and I loved him all the more. When he woke up at 2:00 a.m. with swollen, itchy, eyes I tenderly tended to him, bringing him a warm washcloth and giving him a dose of the Benadryl I’d had the foresight to pack. I thought again of the pain he would suffer in his neck from the hard mattress, and wished, not for the first time, we were home.
I woke up at 7:00, and this time I had two hours on the front porch of the cabin before anyone else woke up. Two hours to sort through my thoughts about camping and parenting and sibling relationships. Two hours to write this very essay. David and I had another hour alone on the porch, companionably sipping our cups of hot coffee and discussing the rest of the day’s plans. When the children woke up we spent a good hour cleaning the cabin and packing our bags. I chuckled wryly as I stripped the five beds. I’d just added a couple of loads of laundry to my responsibilities that week, not to mention the extra clothes to wash and bags full of supplies to put away. I hadn’t escaped anything except maybe an Internet connection. I’d just traded chores for a couple of days. I hadn’t done any reading or writing and I still had a deadline looming for the newspaper. I hadn’t gotten enough sleep and I felt physically ill from the heat.
But I’d had those few hours with the kids splayed across the bed and talking. Hours I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
As we left the cabin, we really meant to turn and say good-bye to the campers. Really we did. But David made a wrong turn and before
we knew it we were headed towards the highway.
“Should we turn back?” he said, and with the heat index hitting close to 112-degrees, and no air-conditioning, we didn’t want the van to stop moving for even a few minutes.
And, frankly, we couldn’t get out of there fast enough. The real fun was about to begin. I pulled out a gift card to I-Hop that Beth had given to David for Father’s Day. By 11:30 we were sitting at a booth, enjoying a brunch of eggs, toast and hash browns. Then we stopped at a nearby Super Target and hunted for good deals. Matthew bought a new pillow for $2.04 after a $2 coupon. Katie got a pair of jeans for $1.98 after her Target coupon. I bought Schick Quattro razors for $7.29, used a Buy One, Get One coupon, paying only $7.29 for the two razors that triggered a $5 gift card. While Matt, Emily and Katie had fun at Best Buy, David and I and Abby went to Barnes & Noble. Finally, we headed home, stopping at a McDonald’s for some free fruit smoothies with coupons and six cups of ice water. By the time we arrived home, the kids were talking about what they would do the next time they went to the campgrounds. Not if but when, I duly noted. David and I exchanged amused glances. Maybe we’d be going camping again someday.
I am glad we’d gone camping this weekend. It made me realize I loved my own bed. Loved my home and the snatched moments inside it throughout each day when I can read or write. Most of all, this past weekend made me realize that what I’d been searching for; camaraderie, had been right there all along. It was there in the hot van on the way home. The people I loved most of all in this world were right there with me. We’d shared the experience of not enjoying camping, with the determination to make the best of it.
And for that, I find I love them all the more.