“Remember the bear? With Dad around, we didn’t even realize we were in potential danger. At least our food was wrapped up well and out of reach from wildlife,” recollected Ellie while she was on the phone with Susan.
Susan snorted, causing the sound waves to vibrate against Ellie’s ear. “Wrapped up? Don’t you remember that bear ate the rest of the dog food! Dad and Uncle Brian secured our food, not Porky’s.”
Ellie smiled at the memory she and Susan shared camping with their dad at Huntington Lake as kids. It’s been a long time since they’d been out in the frigid lake water, at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, pebbles at their feet. If she closed her eyes, she could still feel the summer breeze blow through her kid-created ponytail with her bangs blowing across her face, and smell the sweet pine needles from the conifers towering above them, shielding them from the summer heat. The small stream Dad liked to have nearby was babbling away, telling stories of the natives that used to live there, to anyone patient enough to listen. Dad would always tell stories to Susan and her, reminding them we only borrow the land we stay on. Nobody can own it so we need to respect it. He would teach them how to tell time without a watch, just by using their fingers and the horizon, and how to make a sundial. Native animals were not strangers either. He’d make sure they knew what animals would be out and about and how to react to them, how to respect their natural place. Although he never really used his college degree for work, his bachelor’s in Park Administration came in handy when teaching his girls about the land they camped in, hiked, and explored.
“....oil.” Susan interrupted her journey down memory lane. Since Dad died a few months prior, the sisters have shared a lot more stories together, bringing them back to life as if just telling those stories somehow kept their dad with them.
It did, in a way.
“What?” Ellie shook her head as if that would have any effect whatsoever to clear her head. She continued to pace across the living room of her apartment, waiting for her ex to bring the kids back from the park.
Susan smiled through the phone. “You lost yourself again. I was saying remember when we saw the claw marks and huge paw prints on the outside of the car the next campsite over? You found the half-eaten watermelon with bite marks and the bottle of cooking oil that had seen better days.”
“Right! That poor bear washed down his watermelon with oil. I swear some people need to be more responsible with their food in the wild.” Ellie laughed. Reminiscing with Susan always brought her back to the happy childhood they shared camping with their dad on his weekends with them. “Hey! Do you remember watching the shooting stars over Caruthers Canyon in the Mojave Desert?”
“Of course! How cool was it to sleep on top of the scaffolding Dad rigged for us to sleep on top of the truck?”
Again, a smile tugged at Ellie’s face. Those desert nights cooled but still in the heat of summer during Labor Day weekend, they found it warm enough with the night air, snug in their sleeping bags. The night sky lit up with those sparkling things Dad said were stars. It was one of their jokes. Growing up in a Los Angeles suburb, they didn’t see many stars with all the city lights. But camping with Dad was a whole new story. With her Dad at her side and the astrolabe he’d bought her, she’s learned to identify many of the major constellations in the Northern Hemisphere by the time she was ten. Dad just slept on a cot next to the truck, their dog in the truck with the windows cracked. When she rolled to her side atop the truck, she could see the remains of the dying embers in the campfire. The smell of the smoke permeated her nostrils, much like the memories flood her senses now. “Very cool! Susan, the best part of all those camping trips?”
“The s’mores!” The sisters said in unison, just before both broke out laughing.
“Susan, we need to go camping again. Now that I’m free of the marital shackles I was stuck in, let’s do it. Let’s camp again at Huntington Lake in honor of Dad. It’s high time we show the kids life without electricity. Adrian could use a screen break once his backup power supply dies out. In fact, Renee keeps saying she wants to see the beach and go camping. Those are her two life goals.”
Ellie heard Susan laugh again. “Renee said that? Such simple goals when you’re 5. Do you know how to put up a tent? I don’t.”
She gave pause for a moment. It wasn’t that hard. Dad had bought her growing family a tent a few years ago for what would’ve been their first family camping trip. Ellie put it up herself in the backyard just to make sure when they went live on the campsite, she could do it with very little trouble, or help from her then-husband. They just never used it. They’d canceled the one trip she was so excited to go on. “Yes, I do. Keep in mind that next year, Ricky will be here too. He loves the outdoors and would love to go with us!” Ellie stopped pacing and sat in her rocker, the one her mom bought her when she gave birth to Alison. Sage green. Ellie always loved those natural colors in muted tones. She gently rocked back and forth, as if the very motion would bring her back to the long-lost happy child she’d been. She was an adult now with very adult situations to tackle. She recently filed for divorce and was now a single mom most of the time. Her online boyfriend-turned-fiance will file for a work visa in a few months and move to America to take his place as her husband and step-father to her three kids. Susan met him in person the last time he visited and adored him as her future brother-in-law.
“Good, he can put up the tent Dad bought for me and Adrian. He’ll be thirteen by then, but he can still share a tent with his mom. You, Ricky, Alison, Renee, and Jeremy and camp next to us. This way, Ricky can fight off any bears that visit.”
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary, but it will be nice to camp as a family again. All of our kids need to get fresh air--away from their screens, hike, swim in the lake. We can even get a small boat--I know! We can barrow Kathy’s! She has a small boat we can use to get the kids rowing out on the lake the way Dad took us out on his canoe. We’ll pass on Dad’s nature lessons. Opa will live on in our campfire stories and time-tested, kid-approved recipes perfect for the camp stove or grilling over the open flames.”
Susan evidently felt it was an appropriate time to interject. “And s’mores. We can’t do camping the right way without s’mores.”
“Yes, baby, I’m in! Camping next year with Susan and all the kids.” Every time Ricky spoke, Ellie’s heart skipped a beat. She never would’ve pegged herself as one of those women taken in by an accent, but here she was, melting into a puddle of goo, again.
“Good, ‘cause we have to make s’mores. If we don’t, I’m pretty sure my tent will collapse and my camping-mom license will be revoked.”
“Calm down, baby, I don’t even know what a s’more is but I’m in. You say we’re camping, we’re camping. I want to do everything with you. By the way, what is a s’more?” He added a chuckle for good measure, knowing she’d love to explain yet another American topic he’ll inevitably adapt to when he moved here.
Ellie took her now-familiar spot at her computer desk, spun it around, and propped her feet on the armrest of the couch. She smiled contently as she explained the sandwiched melty chocolate between graham crackers. “...and then you can toast the marshmallow to your personal preference, but golden is perfect….you don’t have that charred taste, but you have all the gooey heat from the sugar squishing out of the sides.”
“That sounds like heaven!” Ricky approved of the treat as she knew he would.
The pitter-patter of little feet caught Ellie’s attention. “Mom? Are you talking to Aunt Susan about s’mores again? Didn’t you just talk to her yesterday about them?” Her eldest, Alison, was a self-proclaimed nosy 8-year-old and loved knowing everything going on.
Now, normally, Ellie was honest with her children. She believed informed children could cope better with bigger changes. They seemed to be doing well being that mere months ago, their Opa passed away unexpectedly, and she and her ex sought to divorce. They’d sold the family home and downsized it to an apartment. Although, it was a rather large apartment she’d found for her and the kids. She weighed out her words carefully, as she’d done for the last few months that they’ve been on their own. “No sweetie, I’m talking to another friend.”
“Who, then?” Her curious little Alison was like a dog with a bone when she wanted information. Dark brown hair fell to the side of her precious little face as she tilted her head to the side--a move Ellie herself did often when she was curious.
This was killing her. She wanted to tell them so bad she was in a happy, healthy relationship and had a stepdad for them. She wanted them to see why she was so much more at peace now, calmer even. She hated lying, but her divorce wasn’t final yet, and although they were legally separated and the courts have their paperwork, she wanted to wait just a little bit longer before she told her ex about Ricky. Her ex surprised her, however, just a few days prior by saying, “If Ricky is in your future, it’s your business. Just be happy.” That was unprompted and unexpected. Ellie even speculated if he’d had a feeling she was already communicating with him. She’d changed all her passwords so he could no longer check her emails, or turn on her phone. He was never near her devices when he was over visiting their children, and even if her phone rang when Ricky called or alerted her to a new message, he didn’t budge. Just a little longer. Just a little longer.
“Just a friend. Mom has a lot of friends she can talk with openly now.” She’d guarded her response. Even when talking on the phone, while married, she’d done so in the privacy of her room, upstairs, out of earshot of anyone. She didn’t like being interrogated when talking with her aunt, her mom, or Susan. She’d made sure her calls were when he was asleep downstairs in his room.
Alison didn’t look convinced. “About s’mores?” She arched her eyebrow up, again mirroring her mother in the gesture. Alison is so much like herself.
She smiled at her daughter and answered, “Yes, about s’mores.” Realizing Ricky was still on the other end, listening to the interaction, knowing he was a secret from the kids killed him too. “And you know what sweetheart? When we go camping as a family next year, we will all make s’mores and be gooey, sticky messes.” She and Ricky knew each other so well, she knew he’d catch the “as-a-family” comment, while Alison would take it at face value.”
“Really? I’m going to go tell Renee! She’s been wanting to camp!” With a quick, tight hug, Alison was off to find her sister. “Bye Mom!”
“Thank you, Ellie.” She heard his smile.
“I knew you’d catch it. We are a family, even if you’re not here yet.” Ellie released a sigh.
“I know. Just a little longer and I’ll be there to meet them during the summer. Then we can all bond together.”
Ellie loved this man so much. “Don’t forget, once I give the heads up to the ex so he’s not blind-sighted, I’ll introduce you to the kids and can do virtual meetings often so they can get to know you before you visit in the summer. I’m sure they’ll be shocked with how well you know them, their habits, and their personalities so well.”
“Baby, I love those kids so much already. It’s easy to know them with the audio clips and short videos you send me.”
“Ricky, we’re so lucky to have you in our lives.” Ellie headed back into her kitchen to make some tea.
“I’m the lucky one.”
“Mom? Can I have another s’more?” Alison pouted her lower lip in such an obvious manner, that Susan just had to laugh next to her.
Ellie smiled and rolled her eyes. “Alison, did you really think that would work?”
With the pretend begging obviously not working, she opted for the direct route. “No, but worth a shot.”
“Ah! There’s the honest response. Then yes, you may have one more.” Ellie turned toward her twins. “Last one you two.”
“Okay, Mom!” was all she understood from Renee, who promptly took another bite of her final s’more. She had a bit of marshmallow hanging from her little five-year-old lip, but it clearly didn’t bother her. Renee was her messy one but always cleaned up the fastest.
Jeremy looked longingly at the last bite in his hand, chocolate dripping down his little fingers. Then he cast his glance toward Ellie. “Mom? Do we have to go home already? I want to play on the slide with Adrian some more!”
“I know you do sweetie. We have school tomorrow and all three of you need showers. I’m sure Aunt Susan would like her little backyard firepit to start dying out so she can get Adrian ready for school tomorrow too. You have just a few more minutes to play on their swing set while I help clean up.” She ruffled his brown hair, mildly sad he was losing some of his little boy curls in his hair, and kissed him on the forehead before he popped the last bite in his mouth and took off for the slide. Before long, Renee and Alison were trailing him to spend the last few minutes they could with their cousin. Ellie and Susan stood at the same time, and as if having the same thought, Ellie said, “It’s great they’re all finally able to play together again.”
Susan nodded before speaking. She looked over at her older sister and threw her arms around Ellie with such force, Ellie stumbled back nearly losing her footing. “Welcome back! The whole family was wondering if they’d ever get to know you again. You’d been more and more distant and we only ever saw the kids on the pictures you sent on text.”
Guilt and inner strength overtook her instantaneously. She held her sister tighter and felt a wayward tear slip down. “I’m sorry Susan. Those days are long over. I’m me again. We are wonderful and the kids are lucky to have such a fantastic extended family. Never again will I be distant the way I was. It’s great to be back and celebrate birthdays again, and have family barbeques, and I’m looking forward to Christmas. You know, this Christmas will be the first one for the children that actually involves seeing family? Ricky will be here by then too. It’s going to be amazing.”
Susan released her sister. “Yes, it will. He’s good for you and the kids. Not just because he’s so compatible with you, but I’ve not seen this side of you in a couple of decades. You’re happy, and outgoing again. It’s as if you’re a delicate flower,” Susan pasted on her goofy grin only a sister or very close friend--she supposed she was awarded both titles--would understand, and continued, “waiting for the right conditions in a harsh landscape to bring absolute beauty and wonder to the dark, dismal world you were in.” She started laughing. Ellie followed suit and doubled over.
When they were done laughing together, Ellie, while trying to keep her composure, asked “When did you get so poetic? That was hysterical!”
“I’m not. You’re the one who likes writing. I just said something ‘writey’ and went with it. Come on, let’s get this backyard cleared up so you can go hose off your three for school tomorrow.”
“Sounds like a plan. Just think, next year in summer, we’ll all have s’mores with a real campfire, the breeze from the mountains, and a blanket of stars, just like we did,” Ellie said wistfully. Although her comment was more for herself than for Susan, she saw her sister pause.
Susan opened her sliding door and turned and faced Ellie one last time. “I miss Dad. He’s taught us so much about living.”
“No doubt. All the more reason we continue with our children what he started with us. First up, camping at Huntington Lake, as a family. I’ll remind Ricky he needs some good campfire stories for us since we’ve heard all of ours already.”
“But the kids haven’t.”
Ellie thought for a moment. “True, we can tell stories of Dad and that damn bear!”