I will admit: every time we pack our SUV to go camping, I stop mid-way. Panic sweeps over me. I begin to have terrible thoughts, like: We are never going to leave. We are going to die packing for this camping trip. I sit down for a minute, take a deep breath, and determine to finish. Hours later, when the car’s so packed the kids hesitantly eye trike pedals hovering above their faces, we set out.
Then, someone has to pee. Then, we’re hungry. Then someone has to pee again. We have the do we pull off to the side of the road? conversation more than once. Hours in to our scenic yet torturous adventure, when we’re twenty miles from our camp ground, Samuel starts screaming. It seems that he has had enough car seat, his butt’s “on fire,” and we will never actually reach our destination. I cup my face in my hands, again fighting this dread of never actually arriving, always being cooped up in this truck with a screaming two year old and a five year old who’s covering his ears and a husband who has finally–finally–hit his limit.
We arrive. We explode out of the car like fireworks upon our campsite, sparking with thrilled relief, the boys popping from one tree to the next, peeing in the bushes, exposing tiny bare booties to the entire campground, “because we’re outside, right, Dad?” Jack barely turns to acknowledge them as he judiciously unpacks the load.
Negotiations begin. Where will we put the tent up? still proves the most difficult decision, every single time. We argue, while wrangling Bram out of a tree he’s climbed and keeping Samuel from running into the road. With frayed nerves and low blood sugar, we debate about whether the picnic table needs to be moved. I give up; then he concedes.
Then, we start dinner. In the midst of terse negotiations, boy-wrangling, digging for a can of propane, and arranging sleeping bags, I allow myself the thought: Why did we do this? Are we gluttons for punishment? Maybe we are, really. Maybe this is just too hard with little kids.
Fire ignites into blaze, and I push through self-doubt to dig for dinner in cooler and teach the boys to roast brats on sticks. Dinner is simple on paper plates and chips, and somewhere in our set-up the sun went to sleep. I look up from my mothering rigmarole to see three faces staring into flame.
Instantly, I am 10 again. Not a mother or a wife or list-keeper like I am at home. I’m not worried about budget or planning meals for next week or getting the next load of laundry folded. Out here, under the stars, for blinks I get to remember the untamed me: the star counting girl, the bike-riding girl with hair in the wind, the explorer of campgrounds and swimmer of rivers, the late night whisperer and giggle-girl who doesn’t go to bed until Uncle Mike’s booming voice silences all silliness in the girl-tent: “Girls, go to sleep!”
I exhale. Sit down, take my place at the fire. I watch them, their little chubby faces alive with this sacred fire. Sacred? Yes. My mind floods with memories as I try to understand their familiar little boy fascination with fire. Jack and the boys echo the conversations of my own father and brother. I sit and listen, as I did when I was a daughter and a sister, and marvel at their blazing eyes and flushed cheeks, how they stare into a fire pit as if it were a 60 inch flat screen playing the Super bowl. S’mores erupt in tears, as apparently the jumbo marshmallows I thought I would win Mother-of-the-Year for buying, are too sticky, too messy. Really?
We tuck our babies into their beds and return to the fire, pour a glass of wine. Now, I’m 22, remembering that trip we took right after you came home, and I was so tired from the meds that I slept most of those days, would wake to fire made and you staring into it. I chuckle to myself remembering the night the raccoons ransacked our campsite, and you couldn’t find your glasses. We didn’t know, in the middle of the Olympic National forest, in the old growth, if raccoons or cougars were circling our tent. I wince: remember the time we got rained out, threw soaking camp into tiny hatch back? We spent weeks camping, me and you, broke and happy to afford the gas and the cost of a campsite. Many fires caught my prayers: would we ever bring babies with us?
And then they came. Bram sat at the camp fire in his bouncy seat, not two months old, and I nursed him in this camp chair. Sam’s first birthday, our families gathered to celebrate the miracle. Last year, I cried as we packed to leave this place weeks before Sam’s surgery. You held me, assured me that we would bring him back here next year, and years to come.
I have stared into a camp fire nearly every summer of my life, marking every stage with the smoke and the marshmallowy-chocolate and laughter and conversation that tends to roar as loud or mumble as quietly as the fire burns. Before babies, before love, I was a girl around a fire with the people I loved. And, every time I brave the struggle to bring my family, I remember her.
Yes, there are parts of camping I dread. It’s not the same as sitting around a swimming pool and having someone bring me a Pina Colada. But, out here in the dirt is where I remember what it was like to gape in wonder like my boys do now. And, maybe as we sit on a bench eating ice-cream, brave freezing ocean waves and build sand castles, feed a deer who wanders into our campsite, and learn to ride bikes, maybe they will catch a glimpse of that girl in me as well. Maybe for just a few moments every summer, they can know me not for the rules I enforce and the manners I’m teaching, but for the girl I used to be.
Maybe that’s why I do it: for blinks of girlhood lived again through them. To be something more than just their mom. To be a kid again. And again.
I’ll see you ’round the campfire.