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Archive for January, 2010

In the middle of my fourth grade, we moved to my father’s new station, Amarillo Air Force Base in Texas.  An energetic nine-year-old, I was eager to learn the ropes and settle in quickly since we moved every three years or less.   Fortunately, living on base was an easy way to learn who was who and where they lived.

The school bus began its weekday morning route in the non-commissioned officers (NCO’S) neighborhood at the bottom of the hill and ended the daily pick up of kids at the top of the hill in the full Colonel and General’s quarters. My bus stop was right in the middle. Because my father was a Major, we lived in the Officer’s quarters in-between the bottom and the top. Starting at the bottom, where the NCO housing was located, duplexes in need of a coat of paint stood with small barren yards.  We lived above them, in a single home with a bigger yard but below the high commissioned officers  that resided in even larger homes with really big yards.  Since the school bus returned us to our street each afternoon after school, first dropping off the NCO kids, I noticed quickly by many signs, including the different uniforms the men wore based on rank, and the number of silver bars that were pinned on their uniforms that “status” was intentional. Riding the bus, I could view who had fancier, newer cars parked in their carports and who didn’t. Who had gardeners pruning and mowing lawns, and who didn’t. Who had lovely curtains in their living room windows and who didn’t.  I considered myself lucky living in, what I called the “safety zone”, smack dab in the middle of our pre-destined station where I felt comfortable playing on either side of the fence.

When we first moved there, our mom re-enlisted my older sister Lynn and me into the Girl Scouts. My mom was the Girl Scout leader for Lynn’s troupe. I didn’t fight being in my troupe, because my choices for joining teams and groups and anything related to spending extra money were limited. My dad’s income and four kids determined my social life. If it was free, my mom signed us up.  Girl Scouts, here we came.

As a result, I spent two summers at the local Girl Scout Camp. I didn’t favor Girl Scout Camp. Truth is, I hated it.  It was both predictable and boring, but it was the only camp I knew about and the only camp my parents could afford, so I went. Besides, we quickly tired of the free base pool after a few weeks when summers came.   The NCO pool and the Officer’s Pool were separate. The kids from the NCO pool played, laughed and swam more than at ours, probably because most officers’ kids weren’t at our pool. They vacationed, took horseback riding lessons, and participated in summer activities that required a hefty fee.  While the base movie theater was cheap, it showed the same movie for a whole long week before showing a new one.  The first summer my sister and I got really sick of Gorgo, the animated Gorilla that towered over San Francisco. With one arm he would wipe out a city block. In spite of the lousy movie, I went anyway for the candy, sodas and popcorn from the change I stole from our Dad’s dresser top.

Girl Scout camp offered at least a change of scenery, even though it was a dusty place, landscaped with tumbleweeds and smelly cabins. Each morning we gathered in the cafeteria to eat soggy, cold eggs or cheap cereal. Pitchers of fake colored juice were placed at each table. Undrinkable, colored water. We’d sing our drippy morning songs that were so silly, I’ve erased them from my memory, and the counselor in charge for the day would read the day’s events in her usual monotone voice. Obviously she didn’t favor being there either. Though Mom had sold us on this camp as a “great adventure,” I could hardly define it as such. Every afternoon we were instructed to write letters to our parents during down time in our cabins.  Down time was a nice way of killing some hours since there wasn’t a full day’s worth of activities available.

The one overnight camp outing was essentially a night of intense discomfort, with mosquito bites and the parched Texas earth beneath our thin sleeping bags. What was supposed to be the best outing of the session was the worst, because it included S’more’s night, the finale of our weeklong camp session. “The big treat!”  We spent more time building a fire, bending coat hangers for the single marshmallow given to each of us, singing Kum Bah Ya over and over and over again, chewing dust and lingering in anticipation for our turn to melt our one marshmallow that was squeezed in with the tiny piece of Hershey’s chocolate and sandwiched between two halves of a graham cracker. One per camper. Talk about budget vacations.  It felt more like teasing than a treat.  Thinking I was clever, I tried everything in my power to get more than one. I said my marshmallow fell off the coat hanger into the fire. I lied and said they forgot to give me my ration of the sliver of chocolate. They were on to me from the beginning. It never worked. Probably because I had chocolate smeared on both corners of my mouth.

That night as I lay on that hard Texas ground in my flimsy sleeping bag, slapping mosquitoes on my face and neck, I vowed that someday when I was a mother my kids could eat as many S’mores as they wanted and when that time came, I followed through.  I taught my kids to make S’mores in the fireplace, the oven, microwave and even over the stovetop. They could eat S’mores whenever they asked. Fortunately, they didn’t find them as mouth watering as I had as a kid.  Even before marriage and motherhood when I lived alone as a young adult, I’d make late night S’mores over the gas stove just out of spite. Then chocolate pinwheels came on the scene already packaged and ready- to-eat cookies with similar ingredients.  I could down a whole package in one sitting without a flame.

GS camp sucked for more reasons that just S’more deprivation; it was just plain boring. The food was bad and in general, we spent most of our time earning patches. Patches weren’t good enough for me. Those little round embroidered images of a camp fire (that would be the camp fire patch), the sewing patch, the hiking patch; there was a patch for just about everything short of complaining.  There was no adventure patch. How could there be? It was Amarillo Texas; it was dusty and hot. Tumbleweeds didn’t provide much shade. These large balls of weed would fly by us when the wind kicked up. Not a pretty picture compared to the rolling green hills and fields of flowers in England we had left behind when my dad was transferred.

My friend, Cathy McDonald, didn’t go to Girl Scout camp. She took her annual summer trip by bus to a real camp outside Oklahoma City. She’d regale me with stories of true adventure; water skiing, fishing, canoeing and swimming in a wonderful lake every day.

A far cry from Girl Scout camp.

I had to go!

My parents said, “Susan- you’ll have to earn enough to pay your own way.”

Although Camp Kiwanis was not an inexpensive camp, I was determined.

Cathy’s father was a full Colonel. Not only did she live in the biggest home with the biggest yard, she had her own bedroom, her own radio, monthly visits to a beauty salon to get her hair cut and most of all, more opportunities.  I’d spend weekend nights at Cathy’s and I enjoyed every part of staying there. She got to shave her legs, I couldn’t yet but I did at her house. Cathy was allowed to help herself to late night snacks. Anything; cookies, potato chips, chocolate milk, peanut butter on white wonder bread – whenever she wanted.  Our family rule was no food after dinner. Plus we didn’t have our pantry filled with snacks like that. My mother was right up there with the first health food addicts in the 50’s, Adelle Davis and the Garden of Eden were her Bibles. Herbs, herbs herbs and whole foods. We ate dry, heavy dark breads, anything in the form of millet and brown rice. No sugar, no white flour and definitely no chocolate milk. Even we labeled her a quack.

It was Heaven staying at Cathy’s. We would lie on her bed at night and she’d share stories of her previous summer adventures at Camp Kiwanis.  I remember lying next to her under her canopy bed with bright red little cherries embroidered around the hems of her pillowcases, listening with envy to her camp stories.

Cathy’s parents always welcomed me into their home. Perhaps they thought of it as community service, to teach their daughter to mingle with others besides the kids in her exclusive neighborhood at the top of the hill.

Over time, I became more obsessed with the desire to go with her to Camp Kiwanis in Oklahoma City. By our third and last summer in Amarillo, my parents agreed to pay for the greyhound bus ticket and supplement what I couldn’t earn as long as I tried.

Cathy’s mom helped me earn money for camp by teaching me how to make homemade bread. And so we baked. Almost every Saturday for at least 2 months, we would flour up her kitchen all morning long and by late afternoon, we’d load up my brother’s radio flyer with wrapped fresh bread ready to deliver. Cathy’s mom usually took over around noon when we’d look kneaded out. By late afternoon after a rest, we looked too refreshed so we’d put flour in our hair and wipe our clothes with it so we’d look like authentic bakers.  We canvassed her neighborhood, door-to-door selling fresh bread. We never had a problem selling every loaf. Cathy’s father was the base commander. I think that had something to do with the neighbors welcoming us into their homes often paying more than our asking price. It was also nice to return to a sparkling clean kitchen that I didn’t have to help clean. They had a maid. I don’t remember how much I earned but my parents covered the rest.

Cathy’s mom got me an application and I signed up. When that glorious night came, my dad drove us to the Greyhound bus station in Amarillo, and gave me a written list of “don’t do this” instructions. There were three other girls from Cathy’s neighborhood who came along. We boarded the bus and I followed the girls to the back for a night of traveling. Several times the bus driver had to reprimand us for giggling too loud, getting up and down too often, going to the bathroom repeatedly and most of all for throwing a foreign object out the bathroom window. To this day I don’t know how he knew and unfortunately I was the guilty one. Thankfully, my new pals sat quietly and pretended along with me that we were clueless about breaking the big rule. And besides, it wasn’t on my dad’s list of “don’t do’s. The foreign object wasn’t foreign to the girls. It was to me when I found it stuck on the bathroom floor by the toilet in the bus. I came back to my seat holding this rubbery thing in my hand and boasting of my find. They laughed and said I didn’t even know what it was or I wouldn’t have picked it up. I lied. Of course I knew. It was a jock strap. They roared and when they calmed down, they told me it was a “rubber”. “Oh, yeah,” I said, “I meant to say that.”

We finally settled down and at one point in the deep of night, I leaned my face against the bus window on the cool glass, looking up and felt mesmerized by the black night heavily dotted with twinkling stars and thinking how lucky I was. I was really flying the coop!  We stopped once at a roadside diner. Rule number two from my parents, “Don’t buy junk food” was my second broken promise. Instead of buying a meal, I loaded up with candy bars and a bottle of coke. Rule number one: “don’t speak to strangers”. I had already broken that one hours earlier.

When we arrived at the bus station in Oklahoma City, a young man greeted us and led us to a large car with a sign painted on both sides, “CAMP KIWANIS”. I felt very privileged indeed. I decided it was a limo.

At the camp, which looked more like a resort, we settled quickly into our cabin, a big clean room with huge windows and a real floor, unlike GS camp cabins with packed dirt floors.  It even smelled fresh with comfortable cots and screens on the windows, a stark contrast to the cabins I was used to which had windows with no screens that screamed,  “Hey mosquitoes, we’re in here!”

Having heard from Cathy that awards were given out at the end of our 2-week session, I was determined to get one.  For a change, I wanted a real award, and not another Girl Scout patch!   The possibilities included:  Water skiing awards, canoeing, swimming races, diving, and the most creative craft award, to name a few. Time was running out. Thinking fast I came up with the idea of tipping the canoe over one afternoon with several of us in it. I proceed to “save everyone”; first by leaning and tilting the canoe over, then flipping it back to its upright position and helping my two fellow rowers get back in the boat. Not that anyone needed saving. I took the lead role as savior and it worked. Did the trick. At the final ceremony I was given the  Best Canoe award in the form of a real plaque.

Compared to Girl Scout Camp, Camp Kiwanis was paradise, nestled in a green mountain. There were no tumbleweeds, and even the dirt smelled good.  The sky was clear almost every night, stars that looked so close, I thought I could reach them, and we got to eat more than one S’more when we sat around the nighttime fire. We sang each evening as one of the camp counselors strummed her guitar.  I loved to sing, especially their choice of songs. Even Kum Ba Ya sounded better there.

There were tall, green pine trees that smelled like trees, a lake full of fish that were so easy to catch and even though I caught the most I threw them back in. There was no fish catching award. The food was homemade; foods that were supposed to be hot were hot and the cold drinks even had ice cubes. Every day we dined on a different dish and mid day snacks were available at any time. There was “down time”, but we were allowed out of our cabins and could spend that time sitting under trees visiting with new friends, fishing, or crafting something in the art room. There was water in more than one place; unlike Girl Scout Camp in Amarillo where the only water I felt was in their cold showers.

Thankfully we were transferred the following spring to another station, because by that time Cathy Mc Donald and her family had been transferred too.

Oh but Camp Kawanis…

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Saying Good-bye Again

I sat close to my Mom in her Hospice bed with my laptop where laptops usually sit – on my lap. She was unconscious, still;  yet she looked like a passenger comfortably sitting in the seat of the plane, waiting on the tarmac for her plane to take off.

I’m not  intuitive enough to make such a leaping prediction. The Hospice nurses who came and went every 20 or so minutes answered my only question with the same answer, ” it could be any time, She’s actively dying.” For all the traveling she did in her life;  she packed, unpacked and packed again during our Dad’s military transfers, this was looking like her last trip with a one way ticket.

For the past few years I’ve heard “any time”, but to hear “actively dying” coupled with a Hospice bed now, I knew she was closer to leaving and this time  maybe she would.

Thinking back, she told me four years ago after our Dad died that she didn’t want to be here anymore. That’s when she knew me, when she knew she didn’t want to be here, when the horrid phase of Alzheimer’s brings panic and fear. They were terrible days for her and terrible days to witness.

In Emergency rooms where we’d end up due to occasional episodes, she’d scratch imaginary worms off her body until she bled and insist that the flecks in the linoleum were worms. She’d lean down to the floor and try to rub them out with her fingers. I learned to agree with her no matter what she said, heard or saw. I agreed that Frank Sinatra was singing in the walls behind her bed, that there was commotion upstairs. There was no upstairs. Correcting her upset her even more.

I learned to agree with her that her mom, brothers and sisters were still in Philly. Reminding her that they had died years ago only lasted for a few minutes in her puzzled panicky mind anyway and she’d just ask the same question again within minutes. And worse, it upset and confused  her.

I rarely said “good-bye” at the end of a visit without her begging me to drop her off at the bus stop to catch the trolley to the city so she could go home. That was over two years ago. She forgot who I was last year. Some days I was her childhood best friend. On other days I was her neighbor or a co-worker from the late 40’s.  Recently, I’d been just a nice stranger who dropped by, smiled a lot and smoothed her hair away from her face. She forgot she hated having her hair close to her eyes. I didn’t.

I agreed to be whoever she thought I was.

I sat in her Hospice room and in-between holding her hand, I worked on a childhood story I wrote; a story that included her. Given the circumstances, the story changed from the story it was to a story that is now in bits and pieces. I decided to file it away for another day.

I took my eyes off of the keyboard to gaze at her still face and her quiet hands. I thought about her life, I thought about my life with her. Every memory of her came alive, every line on her face told a story but her hands held the strongest of memories. Now so soft from lack of use, so limp, so thin skinned and yet if love could be seen with the eye, I saw love in her hands. I saw decades of her hands hard at work; homemaking, mothering, packing, unpacking, creating, grand mothering, nurturing, hugging.

I decided to be who I am, her daughter. I whispered truths into her ear. No more make believe stories to prevent angst and worry. She didn’t look anxious and worried anymore. I whispered every possible thing I could think of that might leave me full of regret if I didn’t.

I told her how much I loved her, how grateful I was for her constant devotion as a mother. I thanked her for instilling in me the true meaning of faith.  I told her that her mom, her brothers, her sister, my dad were waiting for her. I told her the trolley was finally here.

Note to reader~ That night my mom flew but on the wings of angels.

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