“Hel-lo!” I yelled at the woman I saw standing next to a Winnebago on the far side of the campground. Our Ford van and trailer were stuck. The tires whirred, throwing dirt everywhere, sinking deeper and deeper into Tennessee mud.
“Can you please help us?” As my husband Cliff bare-handedly scraped loose gravel to throw under the wheels for traction, I trudged red-eyed to our only neighbor in thirty miles. “We’re stuck!”
“No, I’m sorry, my husband is recovering from a heart attack and can’t exert himself.” Turning, I burst into tears – again, feeling stuck in more ways than one.
How did we end up here, me in a 25-foot travel trailer with two babies, one age two and the other, five months old? My husband was performing art & music school assemblies in K-12 schools beginning in Florida. Months earlier a silver-tongued musician enticed Cliff with the words, ”How would you like to tour public schools in the Southeast with an art assembly program you’ve created from scratch? You could influence thousands of kids!” Though I had misgivings about leaving our cozy rancher, I agreed to the change, knowing how much my husband wanted to leave the classroom and concentrate on developing his career as both artist and performer.
Earlier in the summer, our dining room became a film studio where Cliff created cartoon animation and selected slides for the History of Art program. Cluttering the table, crazy equipment like an apparatus from a 1970s X-ray machine became a clunky camera stand to zoom in on hand-painted cells showing a character named Art dressed as an early cave-dweller. Or as a daVinci cartoon parachuting to earth. Hammering and sawing in the attached garage to build a “mockup” advertising the shows cancelled the moments of sanity I craved as a busy mother. Now eight months pregnant, I gambled on whether my husband would have the time to transport me to the hospital to deliver our baby son.
Four months later when Cliff’s performance itinerary would no longer allow him to come home on weekends, the babies and I joined his gypsy entourage. I felt like a plant uprooted as we rattled down the street away from our house of concrete and timber. I hated the trailer from the start. To begin with, it was small and scruffy-looking. All of a sudden, my previously grounded life had taken on an unfamiliar rhythm: no phone, no mailbox, no fenced-in yard for the children, no feeling of security and very little money. I, this woman, who initially supported her husband in the exhausting months of preparation for the shows, now became an isolated Mrs. Nobody with a day-care center. Besides, where do you keep dirty diapers in a confining space? We couldn’t afford Pampers. More than once, the diaper pail, secured with an elastic belt had broken free as we barreled down the highway, sending urine yuck all over the teeny linoleum floor.
Before the tour, curious friends asked: Whose idea was this? Where will you stay? Don’t you worry about finding a good doctor? Aren’t campgrounds closed in the wintertime? And then this priceless bit: How wonderful! It will bring your family closer together. And so it did, a 3-bedroom / 2 bathroom household scrunched into a 7’ x 25’ space required editing and re-orientation of all sorts. How often I wished I could add a chapter to Peg Bracken’s The I Hate to Housekeep Book. I’d call it “Complete Homecare from the Bed.” Just lean over and open the one and only door, shake out the throw rugs and take the broom that’s hooked neatly just 3-feet away and sweep. If you angle far enough, you can even take the baby’s bottle out of the fridge and swing it to the stove.
Our camper was divided into three compartments: kitchen, bathroom and children’s bedroom. “Kitchen” was a rough designation for the refrigerator with a portable TV strapped to the top, miniature double-drain sink, gas stove with pots and pans stored in the oven, hinged table that became an instant kiddie sliding board, and finally, a sofa that theoretically made into a smallish “double” bed when the table was dropped into a niche in the wall. “Kitchen” was also the den, living room, dining room, bedroom and occasional art studio. The bathroom was most intriguing. No one had yet invented a lock for a magna-fold door, so forget about privacy with little kids. The toilet itself was one of those marine-trap types—no need to worry about Tid-E-Bol. Compare the trap-action at the bottom of the bowl to the springy lid of the mouth of a teakettle. Just press the pedal and “whoosh.” And there is absolutely nothing cute I can say about the commode except that our toddler couldn’t ladle cups of water out of it. Washer and drier? Down the road at the Lucky Laundry Spot. And have your quarters ready.
We were cramped in other ways too. The would-be profits kept streaming into the pocket of our mentor, who had turned from Mr. Silver-Tongue into a Money Bag, which we personally stuffed with our hard-earned cash. I felt immobilized by hatred toward the conniving man who concocted this plan, and who, in my view, took too large a percentage of our income while I felt stuck in a wilderness, literally.
This journey from decades ago eventually moved my husband into a fulfilling career as a self-employed artist while it showed me that the nomadic life is not for me, a woman originating on stable Anchor Road in the Pennsylvania countryside. Our little ones, now grown, experienced a fantastic geography lesson, peering through the windshield while seated on my lap or between driver and passenger seat in the era before car seats. Both kids could roam free all over campgrounds or fly through the air on a swing-set their dad had attached to the rear end of the trailer, ready for set-up if we stayed at a campsite two days or more.
What have I learned? I wouldn’t sign a contract for such an assignment again, but I don’t regret having weathered the storm of this journey. Then too, the Arctic ice of my unforgiving heart has long since thawed. I understand that bitterness is a steep price to pay for perceived offenses, back then at the hands of Mr. Money-minded Musician. Just as importantly, I can empathize with those whose life is in transition, perhaps feeling uprooted as a result of failing finances or the loss of a life partner.
After a satisfying career in academia, my journey traversing the southeastern United States for eighteen months has also prepared me for other seeming “detours” that have become springboards to my next steps, among them a contentious host in Ukraine, the story of whom caught the eye of an editor and propelled me into my writing career. I do believe that everything in our lives, the good or the bad, can be a bridge to a more meaningful view of life. As poet Mary Oliver mentions in The Journey, though I have traveled a road full of “fallen/branches and stones,” along the way I have found my own voice.
A trouble-fraught journey you can recall?
A time you felt cramped, or stuck with a decision that caused hardship?