You really have to love camping to be willing to do it with two unwilling teenagers, aged 13 and 15. When my sister Suzan and her husband Joe decided they wanted travel from Ontario to go tent-camping with us, I was a little worried about how they would survive being confined on a campsite with all of us. They were bringing their young son Luke and a new corgi puppy, Cruz. We had our own newly adopted rescue Jack Russell Terrier whom we had named “Jack.” He was only 10 pounds but was determined to be king of the planet. When Suzan arrived, Jack felt job one was to teach Cruz. It was not always pretty to observe and difficult to control. A camping weekend sounded like chaos to me. Suzan was determined. We agreed to go not too far from home, which meant Dollar Lake Campground. Much moaning ensued. Since it is so close, there was always the risk that the boys may be seen by their friends and their lives would be, if not over, then seriously burdened with embarrassing peer-observed moments. Added to that was the trauma of being torn away from video games and various other screens. “Bring books,” Carl and I said to a wall of sighs and eye-rolling.
My sister and I have similar ways of talking. We are direct, ironic and have a peculiar way of talking LOUD ON STRANGE parts of SENTENCES. It is almost an accent. I blame it on being moved all over the country as Airforce brats. Bits and pieces of various geographical accents stuck. At any rate, our way of talking seemed to be incredibly annoying to pubescent sons. (Later, when Luke was 17, I had supper at their house. Suzan started to go into full throttle story-telling mode. Luke glanced at me in an apologetic way, patted her hand and said, “Volume, Mom. Volume. Breathe!”) It would not be easy for my boys to pass under the radar on Dollar Lake beach as Suzan and I got into full guffaws, story-telling and shouts at dogs.
On Friday night we put up our tents, cooked supper, then gathered around the picnic table. Shane played cribbage with Carl, Suzan and I took out our books. Joe put Luke to bed in their tent. Matthew took out his multiply-read, fraying copy of Dune by Frank Herbert. Suzan glanced up from her book and said, “Oh, you are reading Dune. Great series. Very provocative.”
Shocked, he met her eyes. “What, you have read Dune? You?”
I knew at that moment that I could not save him. The moment she realized that he was surprised and perhaps appalled, he was not going to hear the end of it. She laughed.
“What, you think I am not SMART ENOUGH?”
“No,” he stammered, “it’s not that, it’s just…”
“Oh, I get it. I am not IRONIC enough. I am not part of your TRIBE.”
Still, he puzzled out, “Are you sure you have read it?”
“The whole THING. Yes, Matt, I am a CONVERT, I tell you! Look,” her voice went to a whisper as she grabbed the Tupperware container of cinnamon, “SPICE, Matt,” she hissed, “SPICE!”
He gawped at her, his face a little pale now in the Coleman lantern light. It was dawning on him, the enormity of his error.
“Matt!” she shouted waiving a small plastic disposable knife in the air, “Wait a minute here while I cut my pear WITH MY CRYSKNIFE!”
In the morning Suzan pointed to the French language portion of the bottle of hot sauce, “Matt! Matt! MELANGE. See, MELANGE!” He wearily raised his eyes.
My sister is a redhead and melanoma creeps about in our family, so she covers up. Later that afternoon we decided to go to the lovely Dollar Lake beach. Attired in white, voluminous cotton, slathered in sunscreen, carrying various bags and topped with a wide-brimmed hat, she moved 50 feet ahead of us. She was determined to get a good spot on the beach. Abruptly she stopped mid-stride. Pointing to a track of plowed ground about 20 feet in length, she shouted back to us, “Matt! Matt! Look, sandworm TRACKS!”
“Mom,” he pleaded, “can’t you make her stop?”
“Not likely,” I sympathetically responded, “you will have to ride this one out.”
Her husband Joe came alongside and patted Matt on the back. “It does end, son, I promise.”
Later Saturday night, Suzan challenged him to a game of cribbage. Perhaps eager to reframe their conversation in another direction, any direction, he accepted. I read my book and listened. Their conversation inevitably drifted toward Dune because she asked him, very slyly, some open-ended questions. She intently listened to him. As the plastic pegs hiked their way around the wooden track, I heard Matt talk about the prophetic nature of Frank Herbert’s writing. He related it to authoritarianism in our time and the resistance of indigenous people to corporate mining. My sister talked about oil cartels and how “spice” was meant to be symbolize oil, that rich and horrifyingly power-filled resource that everyone was fighting over. I must confess, I did not know my kid was that deep or that my sister was so skilled in teen-wrangling. I realized that she simply took time to “see” him and meet him where he was. He saw in her an interesting person who was interested in him. They laughed a lot while they played.
I pondered by the firelight that this is a great gift of camping. It reveals the necessity of extended family. I don’t know if it takes a village to raise a child, but it sure does help to have extended family when you are raising teens. Aunts and uncles can see you in ways that your parents just don’t. They augment parental love. I sighed with gratitude and closed my eyes. For a millisecond peace prevailed. Then,
“Jeez! Linda! LINDA! Your DOG is prison-mounting my dog! Get him OFF!”