Thursday, June 18, 2009

Family Camping Trip Memories

For the past 30 years our family meets up north one weekend a year for the family camp/canoe trip. We first started going on these canoe trips as part of a company outing, originally hosted by my brother’s employer. Richard, who was also a good family friend, organized these weekend trips. Camping somewhere in Grayling, and then Saturday morning canoe down the Au Sable River. We were single then and went sporadically, but my brother hasn’t missed a year in 30 years.

Soon as we started having our own families, our family decided to break from the original group, because we like acting like grown-ups and wanted to be respectful of our camping hosts. Our group was big enough on its own and we wanted to make it a family affair instead of the wild corporate party that soon had them ban from every campsite in the area.

The best memories started when as parents of pre-schoolers scholars, we began our children’s indoctrination to the camping and canoeing experience. Soon the grandparents started coming too. At least fifteen to twenty family members went year after year.

Imagine five little boys and two girls ages 3-6 looking up at us in astonishment. You mean the dirt is our living room floor, and our kitchen floor and our playground? Wow, you mean we can play in the dirt? Yeah, let’s get down to business. Soon we had dirt highways for their matchbox cars and tonka trucks around the tents. Whole armies of ninja turtles set up in foxholes fighting off Barbie dolls. We couldn’t keep the kids clean and after a while we stopped trying, changing them three times a day. Or the following year, when one of the dads pulled out a bag of marbles, showing the boys the art of shooting marbles. Gradually the little boys were replaced by grown men, kneeling in the dirt, aiming with one eye showing off their shooting accuracy.

There was a small patch of trees and brush next to our campsites. Really it was just a couple of pathways from one camp area to the camp store or pool. The kids kept going into the four by six patch of “woods” chasing each other around and pretending to be lost. To this day they insist that the “woods” were immense. Then at dusk we would walk through the “woods” with our children wearing their pj’s to the showing of a Yogi Bear cartoon and eat popcorn.

I found I love meandering down a river in a canoe. If I could, I would do it every week. I remember my three-year-old niece proclaiming, “I don’t like this. I want to go home” over and over again all the way down the river. Seven years later, I hear my three-year-old niece, Ms. A proclaim the same thing over and over. Aha, the tradition continues! I remember the lunches we had at the halfway point. After lunch the kids are in the water searching for guppies and tadpoles with their dads. The water cannons and squirt guns in later years and their riotous play in the water.

Two years in a row, we found a spot in the river around a bend, where the current was moderately fast and a perfect size for young children. We parked our canoes along a sandy bank and one by one each child rode the current. The life jackets made them buoyant enough to let one go at one end and ride the current to a waiting parent on the other. It was a blast. But the river changes year after year and we never could recognize where the bend with the fast water was ever again.

We relished whenever my brother brought a new girlfriend or a new couple decided to join our group. “Umm, never been in a canoe before, really?” The scene was repeated year after year. The arguing, the bickering and the blaming begin immediately. The couple is in full adrenalin mode as they crash over and over again in a zig zag pattern up the river, only moving a few feet forward at a time, and fighting all the way. Then the inevitable happens. No matter how hard they try, they will eventually flip that canoe and land in the river soaked from head to toe. For a couple to navigate a canoe down a river is a true test of any relationship and damn entertaining. See how I italicized it and underlined it. It’s just that entertaining.

These were really good years. The kids were young enough to put to bed by eight or nine and the grown ups made a fire, had cocktails, and talked. Some times the guys did skits and we would roar with laughter and the contests of man versus woman on who could start a fire. The ladies usually won because we were patient enough to gather or cut kindling wood. The men would throw a huge log in the fire pit and throw fluid all over it and grunt, “Ugh, fire.” While the kids slept, we took turns taking romantic walks under the stars. We brought our lounge chairs and look up at the magnitude of stars and felt the awe and wonder of the universe. We were recharging our souls.

So many memories, the year that Beloved skidded in the sand while riding his bike and fracturing his collarbone. The year some of the kids came down with the measles. The years of cars breaking down and the guys going to the rescue of some family member. Some unbearably hot weekends, especially the year that every campsite in sight had fans blowing outside of their tents. What a strange sight. People everywhere rushing to Wal-Mart to buy a fan, any fan and sitting together under the trees. We were the first to put four or five of them in a row hoping the blowing air from the fans would cool us off. All envied us. The year of the big rains when camping was just miserable but always remembered as adventure. The year hail as big as baseballs came down and dented all of our cars while the twenty of us huddled in the one tent that was erected in the nick of time. “Was that a tornado warning in the distance? Anybody else hear that?” The year my brother lost his keys in the river. It took us an hour but we found them. The year my niece found she loved bugs and taught all the other kids to love bugs. Think, bugs in pockets. Hearing the maneuvers and artillery fire coming from the nearby army reserve base in Grayling. The women staying in camp while the men took the kids to Hartwick Pines or Gaylord Alpen Fest. We played skip bo (card game) in the camp’s laundry room while having cocktails. Ah good times.

When the kids got older, we found another campsite, less commercial but with a lovely private beach, a few small cabins, a boat launch, and fishing poles for rent. This secluded campground was our destination for the next decade. New traditions were born, swimming in the lake, the volleyball tournaments, the nighttime search for crawdads and frogs, Saturday night popcorn and Sunday morning pancakes provided by our hosts, the evening gathering at Middle Sister’s cabin to play cards.

Now the kids were older and could stay up and roast marshmallows. They would spend hours looking for the right size fire stick. This cut down adult “party” time considerably since we couldn’t send them to bed early anymore. They were mesmerized and loved the fire, the little pyromaniacs. Listening to their youthful exuberance and conversation was enlightening and entertaining. Now the whole family could sit around telling stories. One year the kids grabbed the video camera and made an impromptu film on their hunt and quest for the big crawdads called, “The Crawdad Hunter.” (I'll have to post that later.)

I thought when the kids became fourteen or fifteen that the camping trip would lose its appeal. After all they were teenagers now and surely wouldn’t want to go anywhere with their parents. But they all informed us that it was the highlight of their year that they would never get tired of this trip. They loved it and would always love it. One year my sister and husband decided to skip the family camping trip. My eleven-year-old nephew was so angry that he made picket signs and walked up and down in front of his house in protest. He got his way.

The little boys and girls that were 3-5 at one time are now 19-22 years old. I hear them talk about coming up north on their own and camping together “without the parents” or how they will continue the tradition with their own kids. It gladdens my heart. I’m looking forward to the time when they are the ones setting up camp and cooking all the meals and driving us around.

A full circle is coming. As we (the parents) are getting older, it’s harder and harder for my sisters and brother and their spouses to enjoy the tenting experience. We can’t take the heat. We can’t stand the dampness on wet weekends. The whole setting up camp and then taking it down again has become a big chore. Taking that long walk to the bathroom three times a night is not fun at all, especially when it’s raining. There is not enough excitement for the young adults especially since there are “no babes or hunks” in our secluded campground hideaway. We’re all ready to go someplace new. Plus we have new little ones in the family, new children to introduce to the camping and canoeing experience. They have yet to get really attached to our present camping site so moving to a new one is sounding good to everyone.

Since I don’t “party hardy” anymore, (Did I mention we are getting old?) I’m never inebriated tired enough to stay asleep all night. For the last few years, my irritation with nature has grown. The birds start chattering loudly in the wee hours of the morning that I have to keep myself from screaming, “Shut up, you stupid birds!” Or pull out a shotgun and plug ‘em full of lead. Just a fantasy I’ve had the last few years. Finally when they settle down, chipmunks, squirrels, or crows start their bickering and run around our tent and up the trees making sleep impossible. If it rains, the drops against the tent sound like timpani. So I have been wearing earplugs and taking Ambien on our last few camping trips.

Queenmaker announced no more tenting for him and I wholeheartedly agree. We’re just not sure if this is a new tradition we want to start, leaving the campsite and missing out on all those late night activities and stories around the campfire. It’s bittersweet. But we are planning to go this year, rent a cabin or motel room and see how it all works out. If it’s not too expensive maybe we’ll rent a camper.

Summer memories are best when they are part of a tradition. I would like to keep it going. I want to be part of this ever growing family’s trips up north. Every year we are together at the same place, same time, and same river, with the same beloved family. Every year we share new bonds, new experiences, and new traditions adding to our ever-growing treasure trove of beloved memories that family summers bring. Priceless.

Remember to go to Sprite's Keeper for more memories.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Mami's Love for Machetes

My mom, 78, got a new machete.  I said, “My god woman! How many do you own now?”  This was her third one. Her grandson Jose gave it to her.  I asked her how many did she need, really, I mean. She said, "Never too many."  She pulled it out to show me. She was so happy like a little kid at Christmas. “I got a new machete! I got a new machete!”  This has always been Mami’s tool of choice especially in the garden. Now this tool might be a little over kill for a garden, but it’s the tool she knows.  She can wield it expertly.  Her expertise was always apparent. I never questioned it.

We finally asked the history of her affinity for the machete, and the stories she told generated a paradigm shift within me.  I know nothing about my mother.  I don’t really have a clue. She has history to tell and she has been busting out trying to tell it. But I have been deaf to the stories about her life all my life.

Since Mami doesn’t own a computer, she has been curious about my blog, so she asked me to print them out for her to read.  I think she also wants to make sure that I show her in the proper light. She's been saying a lot lately, "You know I tried my best.  I don't think I was too bad a mother." I keep assuring her she's a great mom.

Since we were all getting together for Memorial Day, I printed them out for her to take home. She decided to read several of my stories. She later said to me, “You forgot to mention that I was the one that bought the Pecan Sandies. I knew that Papi did that, so I made sure we had them around.”  In other words, I’m the one that facilitated your visits with your father.  It was because of me that good things happen in your life. You didn’t acknowledge that. Because I didn't know.

Knowing that she had this thing about being left out of anything or that any of us say something favorable about Papi, drives her crazy.  I said, “But Mami that’s not really the point of this particular story.”  She said, “I know, but…”  Again I assumed that she was being overly needy, slightly jealous or childish.

Later she said to me, with real longing and sadness in her eyes, "If I could write about my life it would be a real story to tell.  I have a lot to tell." 

These two sentence had a profound effect on me.  Here I am, writing the stories I want about my childhood, as a young woman, motherhood, and as the middle age tween that I am today. How pale in comparison. I have a burning desire to write, but I realized that Mami needs to write too, but she doesn’t have the means. She has no outlet. She tries to tell her story, but no one wants to listen. 

I only know the woman that Mami is today.  But she needs me to see her as the impoverished child foraging for and stealing food to help feed her brothers and sisters, her mother’s right hand, her mother’s only ally, the indentured servitude first to her father who never treated her as a daughter, and then as a young woman in the many homes she was sent to work. 

Searching for love, she thought she wound find it with her husband.  And since a lot of us marry our fathers or mothers, she robbed herself of the love she sought, finding someone whose pain body was as large as hers. The only joy she acknowledges is her children and grandchildren.  She was always known for the unconditional love she taught and gave freely to others.  I realized that she was filling the hole with as much love as she could give, because the hole within her was just as large from the lack of it.

I haven’t been able to write a word since.  I realized that the stories she told, I always discounted as complaining because they were the “same old stories.”  They were about the hurts and pain she had experienced in her life.  I never realized the extent of the sorrow and hardship in her life story.  I wasn’t willing to listen.  But I got a glimpse of it when I asked her why she loved her machete. I finally listened.  My mouth dropped when she told me just a fraction of what had happened to her.

I began to feel that writing was a therapy and I want to extend that therapy to my mom. My story and need are so miniscule to hers. I realized that my need to blog seemed more akin to self-indulgence or a self-cleansing.   But in reality I just wanted it out there.  I wanted my stories to be told and since they’re out there in cyberspace, I feel perpetuated. Do I need comments?  Really for me, no.  Knowing that my stories are out there are mainly an experience of release.  Feels damn good.  My need is no longer paramount.  

Now I will try to release it for my mom and dad.  I will be starting the Mami and Papi Project. We start taping Friday. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Bye...AND I love you.

Check out Sprite Keeper for all the spins on the phrase, "I love you."

We never held it against him. We understood.  We were patient, and we finally wore him down. I remember when Papi first told me he loved me.  I was approximately 26 years old and he just volunteered that information to me one day.  I was shocked; you really don’t know what a pleasure, euphoric feeling, and the wonderment to actually hear your father say he loves you. I didn’t do anything to prompt him.  I didn’t do anything especially nice or thoughtful for him. 

We were at a church social and about to leave so we went to say good-bye to my parents. I gave Papi his kiss, when he said it.  “Bye and I love you.”  And he meant it. He even said it to Queenmaker, my boyfriend of nine years.  We looked at each other in astonishment. Queenmaker mentioned how honored he felt that Papi said he loved him too. He saw the look on my face and said, "What?"

"Do you know that’s the first time my father has said he loves me?!!”  The most important thing about that phrase is the “and”.  That’s where he put his emphasis. It created the necessary pause to let me know that he means and knows what he is saying.  I think he told all his children that year that he loved us.  And we knew that something had triggered the beginning of a relationship we had always wanted.  He says he loves us more and more often as the years go by.

As children we were just such a huge responsibility. He may have looked at us as adversaries, the reasons that kept him from the quiet life he wanted, the dreams never to be fulfilled or to have my mother to himself.  As adults, he could see himself in us, that we were good kids, who showed patience, intelligence, tolerance, courtesy and love. We all established an excellent work ethic, which we tribute to him.  Maybe he realized that we were all grown up and he was seeing less and less of his children.  Maybe he even missed us. I don't care why he said it. I was okay if he never had said it. But when I heard it, the still waters deep inside of me gushed like a happy  geyser.  

No matter how hard he tried to push us away, we always came back with unconditional love for him. That is what we learned from my mother. My mom was all about unconditional love. My dad was always an open book. His emotional state was always right on the surface for us to read and it was usually angry. He wasn’t an absentee father not physically, but definitely emotionally. 

He loved a good joke and when he was happy and Mami was happy, the kids felt like vases being filled up with their laughter and happiness.  Don’t get me wrong.  Papi was not always a sourpuss.  He was just moody.  He was just Papi.  

From Papi we learned acceptance, justice, tolerance and truth.  We also learned stubbornness, candor, detachment and irrational anger. He was one extreme while my mother was the other extreme.  We picked and chose from their characters both positive and negative. We learned what or how to be and what not to be. As adults we have learned that the phrase, "I love you" is one that must be heard and said a dozen times a day.

My mother taught us to look at things from the other guy’s perspective. She told us that it was very hard for him to express his feelings. As children we always did look at it from Papi’s perspective. When I look back, if I had five noisy, fighting brats, all trapped in a little house, I’d go crazy or just run away.  But he stayed because it was the right thing to do.  He always taught us the right thing to do. But that day I knew he did it because he loved us.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Middle Aged Tween


Check UnMom for some totally Random Tuesday Thoughts.

Since I recently discovered that my life is beautiful and that I am happy, I find that I want to do everything. I want to have contact. I want to see places. I want to go out to lunch. I want to go to go see the Grand Canyon. I want to visit my son at his job, an exquisite little tearoom on top of a bookstore, and have tea and crumpets. I want to take my elderly parents on a trip they would enjoy. I want to go to have a party. I want to hang out with the women I know. I want to start a club. I want to talk to my sisters and brother, hang out, and eat pecan sandies. I want to help Queenmaker reach his goals. I want to help Beloved reach his goals. I want the new nieces and nephews to know who I am. I want to learn to play the piano. I want to write a book. I want to take pictures. I want to feel. I want to experience. I want, I want, I want.

I feel like a Middle Aged Tween. Tweens dream a lot and want a lot. That’s where I am today. I am between being a mom and a grandmother. At first I was a little down about it, the fact that I don’t hear the word Mom as often as I want. I suspect I have about five to six years before I’m tagged as a grandma. But my attitude has changed, a paradigm shift has happened. Here is an opportunity of a lifetime, an opportunity for a lot of me time. A new chapter in life is afoot. I should be going nuts.

Is this the time for me to wear outrageous outfits, wear clothes much too young for me, get a younger haircut, and shed those pounds and work on strengthening my core? Is this the time that I finally get my own style, my own rhythm? I should travel and explore the world. If only I had the bucks. Aaah, there’s the rub. Just like tweens, I want a lot and dream a lot, but usually we’re stuck in between some thing and some place and can’t get anywhere.

Time is getting short people! I need to get on the move now. I’ve got five years or so before I become Grandma. The young woman still in me needs to bust out. I need to move. I need to grove. I want to be a diva!

Wait, Queenmaker is informing me that it’s called a mid-life crisis. No, I am not in a crisis. I am in discovery. So, I’m renaming it. I’m a Middle Aged Tween.

Monday, June 1, 2009

A Family Language, Spanglish and Other "Um' Sounds

Since there were five of us, just one year apart, we needed no other playmates.  We loudly interrupted each other constantly, trying to get our point of view heard or to interject a few words before a particular subject changed. When we argued, everyone chimed in, siding with one sibling in one moment and then switching sides just a few hours later. Sometimes full-blown battles would erupt. The verbal noise was intense. The games we thought up, the imaginary worlds we visited together, the monumental struggles we dramatized forged a strong bond.
As siblings, we apparently developed our own form of communication, part stutter, part symbolic speech, part hand gestures, part Spanish, part English and mostly uttering urgently the words, “Um, um…um.” Now that I think about it, that’s how our parents communicated, since they spoke Spanish at home and spoke English when they went out into the world. Most of the time, the five of us couldn’t understand our father in any language (very thick accent), so we learned to understand by listening closely, watching body language, looking for clues in facial expressions, and looking at each other a lot for consensus and translation. If you didn’t get what Papi was trying to tell you, he would get mad.
Like most moms that have large families, Mami used to point at us and go through the beginning of each child’s name before landing on the right one. “El, Ev, Na, Mo, Na, yes You.” and say “Go over and get that, the other, over there, get now!!”  And point.  Both Mami and Papi did that.  They’d point in a general direction, sometimes emphatically, not actually saying anything coherent and we had better know what they wanted or we would get in trouble. Inexplicably we learned to decipher and discern what they wanted. Oh my god, we were becoming psychic!
I came to understand that our speech pattern would garner strange looks from outsiders because we mixed our metaphors, stuttered, mispronounce words, simply left words out, made up nonsensical words or replaced words with others that seemed totally unrelated or out of context.  When I was young, I kept thinking, “What is wrong with these people? Don’t they understand English?”
Trying to communicate to Queen Maker that I wanted a glass of milk from the refrigerator, I told him, “Honey, could you, um, um, get, ah, ah, grass, cow, um, um you know, liquid-y, white, cold, in big box.  The strangest look would come over his face when these things happened.
I call this a “reference trail.” Sometimes this trail could be a long trail indeed and so obscure at times that even I am baffled.  Usually words or ideas flash so quickly in my mind that I blurt out words as though they came out of the blue making Queen Maker’s face screw up in pain.
I always felt it was caused by some unknown or yet unnamed form of dyslexia, or brain malfunction. I’ve been meaning to look into it, especially because they might name the disorder after me. I was thinking of heading up a study, but then my husband of 22 years seemed to have adapted slightly to my affliction and at rare times understands some of my reference trail so I feel vindicated.
I try to figure out why my brain chooses the words it does to prove to myself (really, Queen Maker) that I’m not just blurting words out in random. I have come to the conclusion that my brain, when struggling to find the correct words, goes through some kind of misfiring sequence and starts listing words and images that will help bring me, hopefully, to my final destination word. 
Just take a look at my asking for a glass of milk.  “Honey, could you, um, um, get, ah, ah, grass, (Glass and grass are almost spelled the same.) cow, (Cows eat grass and produces milk.)  um, um you know, liquid-y, (milk is definitely liquid-y)  white,  cold, (both milk and my refrigerator are white and cold, thus stumping me.) in big box. (A refrigerator is a very big box of a thing and milk sometimes comes in a box, thus stumping me.)  I ponder and ponder, and there are times I can trace my long reference chain of words logically enough to prove to Queen Maker that my thought processes are legitimate and say, “See, I knew what I was getting at. Really, I did.” He just shakes his head.
I’ve heard the brothers-in-laws talk about it, the Belen girls blurt out random words, so it must be a noticeable family trait.  It seems that all the Belens are afflicted by the same problem. Named by the brother-in-laws as Belenitis.  
This problem only seems to arise when speaking to non-Belens. When speaking to one another, Belens seem to know what Belens are always getting at.  This family language seems disjointed and unclear to others, but we understand it completely. Not only the mixing of Spanish and English, the “um, um, um,” sprinkled consistently throughout, but even the blurting out of random words.  
This language understood by five children, all a year apart in age, always together, and rarely separated created our own language, our own vernacular, and our own understanding, completing each other’s sentences and completing each other’s thoughts and sometimes without uttering many words at all. (Tip: When playing word games, don’t allow Belens to be on the same team. You Will Lose.) 
So the next time I say, “I’m going downstairs to, stitch, jeans, um, um, water, soap, switch-y, switch-y machine, ah, ah, clean, basket stuff.” You’ll know I’m going to do some laundry.

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