Remember the entrance door to the sanctuary is inside you.Rumi
No one would have accused my parents of being neglectful, nor of failing to enforce the rules that kept a child safe from the evils that lurk in dark corners. My world was a circumscribed section of the neighborhood that included the vacant lot across the street, the hill we coasted down on our Radio Flyer, and my friend Patty’s house. My brother Pat and I were not allowed to swim in the Jefferson Park swimming pool because we might get polio. And I was expected to clean my plate every night at the dinner table, even when it included a serving of green beans.
Failure to follow the rules usually resulted first in a scolding, followed by a spanking. My father kept a wooden paddle hanging on a hook in the broom closet specifically for that purpose. It contained holes that decreased air resistance as he swung it toward my little bare behind, most often because I had refused to eat the dreaded beans on my plate. That I preferred a spanking over beans says something about my dislike for this vegetable, but it was a battle I could not win, like most childhood battles, and in the grand scheme of things it did not matter all that much. My parents were children of the Great Depression. To waste food was a crime worthy of corporal punishment.
I was cautioned against talking to strangers long before I knew what a stranger was. The ominous quality that crept into my mother’s voice whenever the discussion came up created a fear that haunted me in nightmares. In those dreams strangers looked something like Bozo the Clown with sharpened incisors. Haunted by this image I finally asked my mother to tell me what a stranger looked like. “Well,” she replied. “They can look like anyone.” This explanation did nothing to alleviate my anxiety. Now I had no way to recognize these evil creatures. I feared that I would inadvertently talk to one of them, or worse, get into its car. The only solution, of course, was to not talk to anyone. Thus I became what my mother described as a “shy child.” She even started answering questions for me. “Colleen will have a hamburger and a Coca-Cola,” she would say to the waiter, when what I really wanted was a hot dog and a Seven-Up.
When it came to camping trips, however, Pat and I were free range kids. There were strangers at other campsites, of course, but it was easy to avoid them by retreating into the woods, which I did on a regular basis. At each campground I had my special place, and as soon as the car was parked in the campsite on day one, I would leap out and run to that quiet spot by the river or under the spreading arms of a western red cedar, and I would say, “I’m back,” as if I were providing reassurance to the trees and the river.
My parents bought their first boat the summer I was nine years old, a fourteen foot fiberglass runabout with an eighteen horsepower Evinrude on the back. My father wanted to take the boat on a camping trip, so we trailed the boat behind our big Chrysler to Spirit Lake at the foot of Mt. St. Helens. We chose a campground called Donnybrook that was on the other side of the lake from the parking lot and only accessible by boat or trail. I’d figured out by then what strangers were, but there were only a small number of campsites, so I forgot that I was afraid of them. In fact, I forgot that I was afraid of anything at all. For free range kids like myself this place had everything I needed for the perfect summer vacation: swimming, hiking, fishing, huckleberries, even water skiing. There was no threat of polio to keep us out of the lake, and though the water was cold, we began most days by jumping off the dock and would remain in the water until we were called for dinner. There was an hour after each meal when we were not allowed to swim. “You will get cramps,” my mother said. My nine-year-old self knew this to be unreasonable, since I never got cramps after eating when I did not swim, but this was one of the few rules at Spirit Lake I was not allowed to break.
We returned the following year with a bigger boat and engine, one that could pull two skiers and hold all of our camping gear: the big brown Army tent with steel poles, canvas tarps for shelter over the table, Dacron sleeping bags, even a cot for my mother who did not like to sleep on the ground. We stayed for two weeks that year and for many years thereafter.
I was never forced to eat green beans at Spirit Lake. They were simply not on the menu, and what was on the menu was always something wonderful: fresh trout, pork and beans from a can, Spaghetti-O’s with sliced wieners, hot dogs roasted on a stick over the fire, fried Spam with a pineapple slice. My mother once made a lemon meringue pie, an accomplishment that brought on the well deserved admiration of other campers. The filling was a Royal gelatin lemon pudding mix, and the crust was made from sticks of pie dough that used to be available in the freezer aisle of most super markets. But the meringue was the real thing: egg whites beaten to stiff peaks with an egg beater, browned next to the fire in a reflector oven that had belonged to my father’s family when he was a child.
There were no spankings. There were no strangers. The world was safe, and it was alive with tall trees, campfire smoke, and the rattling of small pebbles of pumice on the white shoreline.
When we left the lake each summer and the boat was on its trailer, all of our gear packed in the Chrysler, we would head down the highway before making that curve toward home. But my true home was behind me, and I would turn my head and look at the lake for as long as it remained in my vision, striving to remember that particular shade of deep green and the way the ripples played with the light. I was already aching to return.
I could not know then that the lake would be forever changed when Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980 and that someday I would never return. I was a young mother then with three-year-old twin daughters. I remember the day with the same clarity with which people recall the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the downing of the Twin Towers. I felt as though I’d been kicked in the gut and would never recover. I have learned that the loss of place can be as painful as losing a loved one. That shade of green, deep and mysterious, will alway remain in my memory, but finding my True Home once again took many more years of wandering