THOSE LOVELY FAMILY MOMENTS
by Wendy Thornton
Once when I was a single parent, I took my daughter camping. At the time, I was determined to do all the fun things I did when I was married to her father. My very opinionated three-year-old, Jessica, and I went into a sporting goods store where I bought a domed six-man tent with easy flexible poles, a Coleman stove and lantern, a high intensity flashlight, a banana chair in my size and a miniature version in hers. We ran into a slight snag when I tried to buy my prima donna a pair of jeans to walk the nature trails. She had never worn any article of clothing that didn’t have ruffles and lace. In the store, she shrieked, “Only boys wear jeans!” This was obviously refuted by my own apparel, a battered pair of Levi’s. We finally compromised on rhinestone studded designer Calvin’s for Kids which cost more than the tent. The giggling clerks in the store were delighted with her purchase.
Jessica was unhappy about leaving the comfortable home of her grandparents, but she was thrilled when I told her she would get to meet the mysterious father she had never really known. Jessica was a child of luxury. Hanging out with adults all the time, she was also very precocious. She never knew the Cracker house with the unvarnished wooden floors where she was born. She didn’t remember my double shifts as a waitress or my crying over my paltry tips. She thought I had always worn suits and stockings to work, and she thought every house came equipped with reverse-cycle temperatures and wall-to-wall carpeting. Being the guilty parent I was, I pitied my poor baby growing up without a father. I wanted her to be used to luxury. That’s why I had moved in with my parents.
But I also wanted her to experience adventure, to love the great outdoors. I wanted her to know the thrill of seeing a giant blue heron fly across the marsh, and I wanted her to shine a flashlight around the edge of the swamp and pick out the lights of alligator eyes. Just because we didn’t have a man around was no reason for her to be denied these natural delights.
I took off from work for a week and we drove to the town my ex-husband lived in. I stopped to introduce her to him. He’d been sending her birthday cards regularly, so I figured we owed him a visit. George worked at a drive-through beverage Mart, where part of his pay was in beer. By the time we arrived, he’d already had more than his fair share. “Hey,” he said to Jessica as we sat in the car, and he chucked her under the chin. “You’re beautiful.”
“Thank you,” I said acidly, claiming full credit. I’d left George two years earlier, on Jessica’s first birthday. That was the day he invited friends over for her birthday party, went out to get some firewood for our wood stove, and never came back all night. The following morning, I packed toys, clothes, cloth diapers, and crib, and left. I wasn’t going to have Jessica live with the disappointment that I’d experienced with her father. If he couldn’t show up for her first birthday, he wouldn’t show up for anything in her life. That’s what happens when you marry an alcoholic.
But Jessica was fascinated by him. She had been demanding we go see him every time she got a card. Now she put on her best act for him, rolling her eyes and giggling. He gave her a package of gum and some barbecue potato chips. “We’re going camping,” she said.
“Going out to the springs?” George asked me. This was where we had always gone, a wilderness camp in the middle of the scrub in Ocala National Forest.
“Yes,” I said curtly.
“Well, be careful out there. It’s hunting season. Hey, you ought to stop by and see my niece. She’d love to see the baby. And my mother’s living with her.”
“I might do that,” I said. I remembered his niece, Nancy, fondly. She was a sweet, shy girl, half his age (just as I was when I met them) with twice his sense of responsibility. It didn’t surprise me to find that he had pawned off his 80-year-old mother on her. Privately I fumed about our short visit. Three years, and the kid gets a chuck under the chin, a package of gum, and some chips. Typical George.
He gave me instructions on how to get to the trailer park where Nancy lived. I was only going to stop for a minute, to let Jessica meet her cousin and her paternal grandmother. The trailer park was a run-down depressing place on the edge of town with trailers of all sizes and shapes, from battered rentals to tiny silver Airstreams parked on minuscule lots. Nancy came running out to hug me, and she picked Jessica up out of the car like a baby, holding her as if she would never let go. “I’m so glad to see you,” she said and led the way to her small blue-and-white trailer.
Inside, I got the claustrophobia I always get from trailers no matter how lush they are, and this one wasn’t what you would call lavishly appointed. I was shocked to find that Nancy was supporting a whole cadre of relatives. Not only was she keeping her elderly grandmother but her alcoholic mother, who had abandoned her when she was a baby, plus her younger brother, who couldn’t hold a job, and her older sister who came with two children. The trailer was like an Agatha Christie dream sequence with people sidling in and out of thin sliding doors and everyone talking at once. There was no room for any of us to sit down. But they were comfortable with each other, and Jessica was in her element. She loves people. I was the only one who was uncomfortable.
“Look,” said Nancy after we talked for a couple of hours. “It’s getting late. Why don’t you set up your tent in the front yard and go down to the Springs tomorrow?”
The thought of setting up my tent in the tiny space they called the yard was not really appealing. But it was getting late, and I thought it might be a good idea to try it out before I got to the woods. With Nancy’s help we set up our domed abode, but flexible poles turned out to be a bit of a misnomer. No doubt they were flexible if you were Charles Atlas, but Nancy and I had to struggle and pull to get the aluminum tipped ends into their aluminum holes. The fiberglass rods threatened to whip up and belt us in the face if either of us let go. Finally, we had it all set up. I pulled the banana chairs out of the car and set them up in the tent. Then Jessica and I took everyone out to dinner.
When we got back to the trailer park, it was quite dark, and I told Jessica we had to go to bed. I read some stories to her by flashlight, but she was too keyed up to sleep. Finally, she went inside the trailer and watched television with her cousin while I fell asleep alone. I woke in the middle the night to the most awful sound I’d ever heard. It took me a moment to identify it, and during that moment, the thought of some wild creatures attacking passed through my mind. But the noise was only from cats, dozens of cats, running through the trailer park, clawing and snarling at each other, yelling as if they were dying. I was glad Jessica wasn’t in the tent. I went outside and looked in the window of the trailer. There was my little girl curled up on the couch with her cousin, snoring away, with the air-conditioner blowing and the television blaring. At least I didn’t have to worry about her listening to cats and neighbors fight. The cats jumped off the roof of Nancy’s trailer, sliding down the rounded walls of my tent as if it were a giant waterpark slide. I watched the walls shake, but somehow the tent stayed up. At dawn, the cats all quieted down, and I slept for a couple of hours.
Jessica came out about 9 a.m. and patted my cheek. “Wake up,” she said. “Nancy says come to breakfast.” She left as I groaned, but I managed to stagger into the trailer where Jessica now sat in front of the television watching Saturday morning cartoons. For some reason this enraged me, and I couldn’t eat. I had a cup of coffee, took down the tent, and packed our gear into the car.
“Come camping with us, Nancy,” I said.
“Are you kidding? It’s hot out there, and I hate the bugs,” Nancy answered with a shudder.
“We’ll swim, and I’ll bring insect repellent.”
“No, thanks. There are bears in those woods.”
Observing Jessica looking at me wide-eyed, I said, “Oh don’t be silly. We used to go camping out there all the time, and I never saw a bear.”
“Aren’t you scared to go by yourself?” Nancy asked. “There are snakes. You have to admit there are snakes. And crazy people in the woods. And all kinds of weird noises. I’d be terrified. Do you have a gun?”
“What? No, I don’t have a gun. Come on Jessica,” I said to my goggle-eyed daughter. “We’ve got to go.”
“I don’t want to go,” Jessica screamed.
“Why don’t you camp and Jessica can stay here with us?” said my ex-mother-in-law.
“No, Jessica and I are going to do this together. It’ll be fun.”
Just in case I didn’t get it the first time, my little girl screamed, “I don’t want to go!” I picked her up off the floor, and she began to kick and scream and cry. I tried to gather up her special blanket and the toys she’d brought inside but everything seemed to get away from me. The gang watched, but no one made any attempt to help. Jessica tried to push me away.
We finally got to the car and I promised to come back through town after the campout. Jessica kissed her relatives and cried as we drove away. I turned on the radio and sang a song she used to like.
“Stop that singing” she shrieked.
We drove in silence for a while until her sobs turned to sniffles. I tried to point out the countryside we passed through, the lakes and live oaks, interesting little yards with pink flamingo sculptures and limestone bordered gardens. She turned the full brunt of her scorn my way for the entire trip.
“You never let me talk to my daddy,” she commented as I drove. I bit my tongue. Literally.
When we got off the main road and turned onto the clay road that led to the springs, Jessica cheered up a little. The road was sandy and bumpy, like a roller coaster ride. I was afraid I’d get stuck. When we reached the edge of the lake she was almost cheerful. She even helped me unload some of her toys from the car. I put a bathing suit on her and let her wade into the lake while I dragged the tent and supplies out of the vehicle. This time the tent was even more of an ordeal. It was almost impossible for one person to set it up. The sun climbed into the sky and I was so hot that I left the tent in a forlorn circle on the ground. There were no other campers nearby. The bugs—homicidal horse flies, and murderous mosquitoes—swarmed around us.
I sat in the banana chair, trying to recuperate from the heat and the lack of sleep. Jessica came over and dropped a giant glob of mud onto my face. “What are you doing?” I sputtered and she danced away laughing.
“I’m hungry,” she said. I open the bottled spring water and cleaned the mud off both of us. I peeled her an orange while I tried to light the Coleman stove. The air filled with propane but nothing happened. By now, the sun should have gone down but it seemed to linger only because the horizon on the lake was long. I had to get that tent set up. I tried to get Jessica to hold a side but that was a joke. She was tired and hot. “I don’t like that tent anyway,” she said.
“If we don’t get it up we’ll have to sleep in the car,” I snapped.
“So? I like to sleep in the car.”
Huh? With clenched teeth, I said, “Mommy’s can’t sleep in the car. Mommy’s too big.”
And my precious little toddler replied, “That’s Mommy’s problem.”
I weighed down one side of the tent with a log and managed to get the aluminum ends on the other side into their little holes. With a groan of satisfaction, I pulled the tent up right into its igloo shape, and as I did, I heard a ripping sound. I inspected the gaping hole in the tent. The sun was beginning to go down. “Why don’t you gather some sticks while mommy finishes the tent?”
“I’ll get dirty,” Jessica protested.
Okay, so I should be drummed out of the motherhood league because I said, “Jessica, if we don’t get a fire going, snakes and alligators will crawl around us. Is that what you want?”
I listened guiltily to her sniffles as we gathered wood. Thanks to her skinny sticks, we soon had a nice fire going and I felt better. This was good, because our flashlight died and the Coleman lantern was about as easy to light as the stove had been. An owl hooted and Jessica shivered. Some little animal screeched in its death throes and I shuddered. As darkness fell around us, the alligators began their chorus of grunts and groans and fish began to thrash in the water. The spring-fed lake, which only hours before had seemed like a peaceful paradise, began to assume the malevolent aspects of the swamp it really was.
Something rustled in the bushes nearby. “I’m scared, Mommy,” said Jessica plaintively.
“Don’t be scared. I’m right here,” I said.
“You can’t protect me,” she said.
I stared at her little white face in the firelight, and my resolve stiffened along with my voice. “Yes, I can, Jessica. I will never let anything happen to you,” I lied.
“You can’t help it,” Jessica said her voice rising. “I want my daddy.”
“You don’t even know your daddy,” I said testily.
“Well, I want him anyway,” she shouted in her furious little voice. “I hate you!”
I grabbed her up out of her little chair and sat her in my lap. “That’s just too damn bad, Jessica. You’re stuck with me.” Height of maturity.
After a while, she stopped crying, put her arms around my neck, and leaned her head against my chest. I thought she had fallen asleep. But all of a sudden, she leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek.
Oh guilt, what an emotion to bask in, an emotion to motivate. All night I stayed up listening to the tiny breaths of my baby in that tent. I stoked the fire and kept the ferocious animals at bay. I paced noisily around the tent in the dark, scaring away snakes and coons and armadillos that rustled in the bushes outside the circle of light. As morning broke, I rigged up a grill over the fire and cooked Jessica a huge breakfast of sausage, eggs, soggy toast, and tangerines. When she awoke, her exhausted, smoky, dirty mother was there to greet her with a picture-perfect meal fit for a princess.
As soon as she was content, I loaded everything into the car and drove to the fish camp on the edge of the woods where I called to make a reservation at a luxury hotel in Disney World. We’ll go camping again when she’s older, I thought to myself.As we drove out of the woods, we saw a mother bear lead her cub across the road in front of our car. The bear looked at me as I slowed to let her waddling baby pass. I knew exactly how she felt.
About the Author:
Wendy Thornton is a freelance writer and editor who has been published in Riverteeth, Epiphany, MacGuffin and many other literary journals and books. Her memoir, Dear Oprah Or How I Beat Cancer and Learned to Love Daytime TV, was published in July 2013 and is available on Amazon and Kindle. Her mystery, Bear-Trapped: In a Trashy Hollywood Novel, was published in February 2015 and her latest book, Sounding the Depths: Memories with Music, was published in Dec. 2017. She has won many awards for her work. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and has been Editor’s Pick on Salon.com multiple times. She was the organizer and first president of the Writers Alliance (www.writersalliance.org). Her work is published in England, Ireland, Germany, Australia and India.