Bj fried scrapple on a Coleman stove during our Cleveland Heights camping association tent outs. The term association was loosely applied, as it was really just 5 families with a zealous romanticism for the outdoors. What happened to all those famiies? The superintendent of schools left his wife and ran off with the elementary school principal. One father, known for his mushroom foraging, died of a peculiar cancer. One family moved to Texas. The two families left, ours and another, tried and failed to continue together, broken up by feuding and my mother's cold hatred for groups where she felt ignored. She blamed it on the youngest children, who, she said, had no one to play with this among this large group of pre-teens and teens, sporting peace signs and marching with SDS. But I know our withdrawal from the group was her own doing. And our father, who enthusiastically assured us that the family who camps together stays together, also left. What has happened to all those families? One by one, the adults have died, and the children grown up and pursued more or less successful careers, some extremely well known, some modestly so, others just surviving.
But before then, there were the days in campgrounds, when all the mothers cooked and we compiled our food. And BJ made scrapple, a cornbread with something resembling ham, fried in oil. Everything was fried in oil back then. If you did not fry you were not a good mother. It was kind of the opposite of now. I remember BJ also, for her fierce tenderness, and the smile that was always on her face. I remember she defended me when others made fun, as they often did. I was kind of a freaky nerd. I grew terrified of strange things. Once, canoeing, we saw a Stop Sign in a river. Someone had placed it there as a joke, I am sure. But I thought it was portentous of unknown treacheries ahead.
Later, when our parents divorced, Bj took my sister with her to play with her daughter at their summer house. My sister learned to drive a boat and swim in deep water, something I had been unable to teach her. And I, home watching the young ones, grew thinner and sadder. In my mind's eye I could see her, my sister leaping freely from the cottage dock. My sister always said that BJ taught her to mother. And she did a good job. I used to refer to my sister as the baby machine. Even her twins popped out with relative ease. She had her fifth baby at the age of 47. I am still not sure it was her last one.
Later they housed her when she moved to Houston to play in the symphony. She was their adopted child. But I had my turn as well. I flew to Houston to adopt my first son and called them to see if they wanted to have dinner. An hour later BJ was at the hotel. "You are staying with us," she announced firmly. BJ gave me meals while I learned how to be a mother.
7 years later I flew back to get my second son. The Irwins drove out of town due to Hurricane Rita. But days later they were back, Rita having turned at the last minute. I stayed with them again. BJ was older and more tired. But she still took care of us.
Now, 6 years later I have learned she is dead. I did not cry at this news, but it reminds me of how much we take for granted. That those who love us will always be there as figureheads of love and knowledge. That we can always return to the state of child hood, and those women frying breakfasts on Coleman Stoves will be there to give us advice. That the state of youth and rebellion is permanent.
It is not. I tell this to my older son when he fights with his younger brother. Be careful, I say. He is the only one who will be there to remember your childhood with you. He grows cross at this. As well he should.
My own mother will be 90 next year. She looks remarkably the same for her years. But her blood pressure is up, her toes blue. She can no longer control her bowels, which shames her. My sister, the baby machine, is there to massage her toes, something I cannot manage to do.
To me we are still children, leaping from the dock, expectantly. Seeking our freedom. But that freedom is closing around us as we lose, one by one, all those who simultaneously protected and prevented us. We are still in mid-air. Waiting to land.