Sometimes when the kids came to visit me, we would mount a grand expedition and go camping. Aside from the 4-H camp experience, which entailed sleeping in a rustic cabin and dining indoors in a huge hall, fed by a crew of cooks, I had never been camping until I went with Andersol and Bodie. Sleeping in a tent is so different from sleeping indoors that I could hardly believe that they were the same human action. Indoors, my bedtime ritual included at least an hour of reading before I was calmed down enough from the day to sleep; in a tent, I rarely could remember putting my head down on the pillow, I fell asleep so fast. Waking inside my bedroom, I would have to drag myself out of bed and stagger across the room to turn off my alarm -- I didn't dare keep it beside the bed because I could, and was likely to turn it off without waking up -- and then awaken slowly by ingesting hot coffee and reading the newspaper from end to end. But when camping out, I would awaken with the first light of morning, wide awake bing! and ready to take a long walk to spy on the stirring birds and hear the trees begin to rustle when the sun came over the horizon. And be rested! The other amazing thing about sleeping out of doors was the breathing thing. My sinuses were always aggravated right around four o'clock in the morning, and I might have to get up and blow my nose, or take a drink of water because I couldn't breathe through my nose and my throat was dry, or first thing after arising I would sneeze violently about five or six times. But when we went camping, none of us even snored, like there was just more air to go around. No, it wasn't that I was allergic to the dog in the house -- we took him with us when we went camping and he slept right beside me, sometimes hogging my little mattress.
When it was just the three of us and Gabe, we used a six-man tent. With the kids, we used two, and made dinner time a ritual squabble over who would get to sleep in which tent with which adults. Five kids and three adults and a big dog made for some close quarters, but it was a blast. I loved cooking for eight, and I was quite the territorial little mama about who was The Cook! We used two two-burner Coleman stoves, and I had some oversized pans I kept just for cooking for such a crowd. (At home, when it was just me, the Big Pans were wrapped in lengths of unbleached muslin to keep the dust off and to keep them unscratched.) Sixteen scrambled eggs for breakfast! Twelve hot dogs with all the fixings! Wow, look at that mountain of mashed potatoes!
Bodie and Andersol camped out a lot, and were very good at managing a little campsite (or a big campsite) with the least amount of inconvenience. They could put up the tents in no time, having decided on a choreography of movement that left nothing to chance or variation that might waste time or movement. There was no "Do you want to drive the pegs this time, or shall I?" No "Did you remember to put the ground cloth in the bags?" They moved like they had pre-counted the number of steps from the tent site to the back of the van. Out comes the ground cloth, unfolded in a triple flip. Placed. Back for the tent bag, one on each side. Unfold, put fiberglass rods together, in they go, up goes the tent.
Before taking the kids, we assigned each child a task. "Owen gets to be The Stickman, and gather twigs for starting our fire. Oesha will be a Sheet Shaker with Andersol." Bodie was like a general, deploying his troops, he loved ordering us around, and we loved him as The Commander. "Kelsa will be our Camp Policewoman, and she will get to use the grabber to pick up any litter that may invade the camp. (The grabber was one of those pincher-things that you pull the trigger and three prongs at the end come together to pick up golf balls or whatever.) And no one else but she will get to use it this trip. Michel will scout the campsite each morning and evening for any animal tracks with Andersol, and will help supervise the raccoon-proofing of our food with you."
"And Marca?" I had to ask, dreading what might come next. Getting Marca to take on any job she didn't like could ruin the trip for everyone.
"Ah, that's where Andersol's genius comes in. Andersol?"
Andersol went to the closet and brought out a canvas bag. She put the contents on the table. A small pair of binoculars, very lightweight, a colorful guide to species of birds, and a beautiful leather bound notebook, with a pen attached by a gold colored chain. "Marca, because she is the oldest," Andersol said with exaggerated primness, "will be our Naturalist, and be responsible for listing each day the birds that we see in this lovely notebook."
"'And no one else but she will get to use it this trip,'" I quoted. "Brilliant!"
God, what a stroke! Marca would instantly covet the books and binoculars -- hell, I lusted for them, myself. And it would be in perfect keeping with Marca's greedy brat personality to get to be the only one to use the beautiful things, not to mention the very important aspect of keeping her busy without occupying all the adults' attention.
And so we camped, and it was glorious. The kids were freed from Nanny's ministrations, and the stricture of their stuffy private school. They were allowed to go to bed with dirty feet, and scuffle in a muddy creek. We trooped through the forest with Andersol blazing our trail, and sang songs after dinner, old church hymns, since those were the only ones we all knew together, and so that was our daily prayer as well. We made a little campfire each night, and hugged and giggled ... and talked about what we hoped we'd dream about that night.
Mornings making breakfasts were a special delight to me, with five children and the dog bounding around, ecstatically greeting the new day. "May we take Gabe for a walk?"
"No, you most certainly may not. He could drag all five of you off into the woods after a skunk without even having to work at it. I will hold Gabe and we can all take a walk with him later." Always recounting dreams over breakfast, even Uncle Bodie and Aunt Andersol having learned our habit.
My horde of sister-children loved Andersol and Bodie as if they were family, called them Aunt and Uncle as if they were family, and sometimes were confused when the Talles weren't present at family gatherings. I watched Kelsa and Michel with them one day, and was fascinated by the way my niece and nephew were tracing their fingers over Bodie's and Andersol's features, then their own. "Your eyes are like Uncle Bodie's," Kelsa was saying. "But your eyebrows are different colored. And your noses are different, but your ears are the same." Michel held out his hands. "Look, Kelsa and I have the same hands!"
"And Kelsa has reddish hair like your Aunt Sully, and Michel has dark hair like your Mama."
Kelsa giggled. "Papa doesn't have any hair."
"He's grown past the need for hair, sweetie," Andersol said. "When he decides, he can have any color of hair he wants to match his suits." Hugs and laughter all around.
For their part, Bodie and Andersol had the opportunity to love the children as if they were their own. Neither of the twins was particularly interested in finding a spouse to give them children; my five could be, in part, their five, too, for them to share as they shared house and lives.
Notice how I called them "my five." A mere Auntie I may be, but I spent more time with those children than some divorced parents spend with theirs. And while I didn't build my life around them, I would have had an empty life without them.