September 8, 2010

Traveling Clothes

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays — Ann @ 9:10 am

Recently on a hot summer afternoon I padded around barefoot in the backyard doing my chores, reveling in the warm pavement/cool grass contrast, and letting the hose water dribble on my toes when I filled Geronimo’s drinking dish. Later that night I was in the bathroom standing on one foot and then the other, using soap and a washcloth to render my feet sheet-worthy, and suddenly I was nine years old again, sitting in a tent at Hat Creek, taking my evening bath.

From the time I was very young, my parents took my brother and sister and me camping at Hat Creek, situated near Mt. Lassen. That was before Interstate 5 up to Redding was built, so traveling meant a long, hot dusty ride up Highway 99, the smell of alfalfa blowing in through the opened windows (out which, occasionally, my sister’s and my feet were sticking — this was before seat belts). The names of the towns charmed me, even as a child — Corning (Olive Town!), Richfield, Maxwell, Arbuckle — as did my parents’ vacation rituals, such as my Mom’s warning that “It’s going to be hot going up through that Valley!” and my Dad’s vacation morning, “Let’s get this show on the road!”

My Dad was responsible for fishing-related duties and packing the car, my Mom was responsible for cooking, cleaning up, and taking care of the three kids, which included our nightly “sponge baths” in the tent, usually by flashlight — the lantern turned off to maintain our modesty lest our silhouettes be broadcast against the canvas. It always felt so good to climb into my sleeping bag at night after a hard day’s play, the sweet smell of Ivory soap filling my flannel cocoon as I drifted off to sleep in my sleeping bag, the grown-ups’ voices outside at the camping table lulling me to dreamland.

But the memory which flashed back to me as I stood in my bathroom washing my feet was the concept of “traveling clothes.” My mother took pristine care of her kids, even while camping, making two hot meals a day on her Coleman stove (lunches were sandwiches and cream soda) and, as mentioned, seeing to our ongoing hygiene. And one of her cleanliness rituals was making sure that, tucked at the very bottom of the suitcase, was a fresh set of traveling clothes for her children.

The traveling clothes were the shorts and shirts we weren’t allowed to wear for all the weeks of camping, because on the last morning, after our final wash-up, on would go the clean socks and fresh shorts outfits, usually smelling of cool canvas from being at the bottom of the stack. And getting into these outfits would be the last thing we did before clambering into the Mercury to make the long sad trip from the mountains down to the flat, treeless East Bay. I guess my Mom’s thinking was that when we stopped at gas stations or rest stops (I don’t recall ever eating at restaurants), her children were going to be scrubbed and well-dressed. When I think about the effort she put in to making that happen, my heart does something funny inside my chest.

I loved childhood camping with my parents more than any other thing. So, many decades later, I was shocked to overhear my mother say that she never enjoyed those trips — too much work. Well, yeah! Of course, why didn’t I think of that? We were all playing and “vacating” while Mom was doing the same work she did back home, except without hot and cold running water, bathtubs, refrigeration or a washing machine. But not once, not ever, did I hear her complain about it at the time.

I don’t know if our everlasting gratitude could ever make it up to her. It sounds a lot more romantic to say, “My Dad taught me how to catch and clean a trout” than it does to say, “My Mom taught me how to give myself a sponge bath in a pitch dark tent in the middle of the wilderness.” But to me, the latter is no less a skill.

These are some of the things I think about, when I’m in the bathroom, washing my feet.

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