Today I decided that roasted marshmallows taste like manna. It’s interesting how we sometimes get a chance to revisit our lives in full circle moments. Sometimes they’re good experiences and other times they can be triggering. Today I had a beautiful moment that could only be orchestrated by the benevolent heart of the Universe.
I hadn’t planned to write a blog this week because I’m working hard on editing my memoir. I am discovering that editing is more fun than the actual writing–perhaps because it offers me a bigger picture of my childhood as I tie up the loose ends. I enjoy taking a step back and looking at the moments of beauty and the human angels I’ve met along the way.
The last chapter I edited was about a time when my family camped at a shelter where there was an abandoned sawmill next to a field of wildflowers. It was a confusing time for me because we were suddenly homeless even though we’d never use that word. My mom said we just had to make do until we could live like normal people again. Along with the fear of leaving our home and having nowhere to lay our heads, there was a mystery and lots of beauty on this journey. And I’d say what really made it fun was my mom’s ingenuity to suggest we pretend we were at a Summer camp. In this way, she made a game of doing our camp chores and enjoying the wonder of nature around us. I read the chapter to my husband just this morning and he pronounced it well done.
With the satisfaction that one more chapter was ready for the beta readers, I headed out with my husband on our annual trek to the back of Mt. Ashland to a place called Grouse Gap where there is often a plethora of wildflowers at this time of year.
We had packed a yummy salad and some baked pastries from a local store to accent our supper. When we got to the top of the mountain, we were blown away by the variety and abundance of wildflowers compared to previous years. It was a thrilling date for those who love wildflowers.
As we pulled into Grouse Gap, I was a little disappointed to see tent campers in my favorite spot and to make matters worse they also had taken up the shelter where they had a huge fire burning. As we searched for a place to set up our chairs and began to eat our meal, a little girl ran out to stare at us.
I smiled and asked if she had counted how many different kinds of wildflowers there were around us. She shook her head and said, “I think there’s too many bees to go near them.”
I smiled as I remembered my eight year old self screeching over the perceived threat of bees, but I told her the bees were probably more scared of her and with that she was off to help her dad collect more firewood.
While we ate our supper, she and her father hauled armloads of broken branches into the shelter to fortify the fire. The father walked past us and being a friendly person, I struck up a conversation by asking where he was from. He said they were from Nebraska by way of Florida and California and they were hoping find the right place to settle down. It was not that different from the trips of my own childhood so I instantly began to feel a kinship with this family. He was darkly tanned like my own father while I was growing up. He described how he had pulled off the freeway and searched his phone to find this camping spot. It was a hot 103 when he looked it up along the I-5 corridor and cold 53 degrees by the time he found the top of the mountain in the dark of night.
I mentioned how it was a pristine and beautiful spot for a camp. He said the good news is you could stay there for free for several days and it was the first time in three days they’d been able to sleep outside their pickup. He had gone down to Ashland with a sign that his family was stranded and out of gas and made $130 which filled the tank and bought a little food to keep them going.
I didn’t see his wife, but he and both little girls referred to her. As we watched him haul some more wood, I told my husband I wanted to give them the box of pastries. Being the agreeable man he is, my husband smiled and handed the unopened box to me. No one was around to hear me say this, but a few minutes later, the girl came back and handed me a delicious scented wildflower. I was touched by her kindness to brave the bees for me, a stranger.
I told her I had something for her to give her mother and handed her the box of pastries. She looked very serious when she took it. I even questioned if she liked pastries, but a few minutes later I saw her hauling wood with one hand while she ate an apple turnover in the other.
The father stopped to catch his breath from hauling a huge stump to the shelter and came back to chat some more. I told him how my family once stayed at an abandoned sawmill when I was young. That it had been next to a field of wildflowers and his daughter reminded me of my wonder and excitement during that stay. I guess my story opened up his soul to share his own stories.
He told my husband and me how he had grown up in a camp trailer down by the river with his parents and two sisters. How his dad beat him. How the kids at school called their family river rats. How his teachers gave him advice to use the gym showers before school. And then as if things were not bad enough, one day their trailer caught on fire and exploded taking their only transportation with it. I could see the pain in his eyes while he recounted this story.
When I asked where they were headed, he said he was going to be looking for work in construction and make sure they got the girls in school when the new school year started. I couldn’t help but smile to see how this man who had nothing, still cared to make sure his daughters got to school, but my heart still ached for his daughters. How would they be treated at school? And would they be able to settle down in the next couple months? After he went back down the hill to haul more wood, I told my husband to help me keep an eye out as the evening wore on and if those girls did not have any marshmallows and hotdogs to roast, I was willing to go to Ashland and back to buy this family some groceries.
When the father came by some time later, I told him we rarely carry cash, but if there was anything they needed by way of groceries, we were willing to go back to town and get some. He smiled and said, “We’re good!” Then I realized he didn’t want charity from us. He was glad to swap stories like an equal, so we shared some more stories.
Then a magical thing happened. Maybe it was all the wildflowers and the scent of the yarrow on my hand and the aromatic wood riding on the breeze, but it felt like I was talking to my own father and camping with my own family in the shelter of that old abandoned sawmill over forty years ago. The laughter of crazy stories and even his whispers of how God was providing for them against all odds brought my heart full circle.
If I could, I’d tell this girl and the little girl inside of me the same thing; you have intrinsic worth just like a wildflower—you don’t have to give people gifts or please them to be loved because you are valuable whether you live in a tent, a motel, a shelter or a house. It was a message this little girl was probably not ready to hear, but a truth my heart always needs to remember.
Just before we left, my new friend who’s name is Ashley, brought me a marshmallow she had carefully roasted to golden perfection. She held out the stick with her dirt tanned hands and said, “Would you like one?” All my mother’s cautions about eating food from kids who don’t wash their hands woke up my lizard brain, but her face was as innocent as the wildflowers around us. And so I reached out, said a prayer and partook of this communion between daughters of fathers who don’t always have work and go on camping adventures between houses.
She smiled and said, “I’ve finally figured out how to make them perfect and this was the first one. I haven’t even tasted them yet!” I allowed my heart a moment to embrace this honor and then I smiled back as big as I could, in the hopes she didn’t notice the happy tears in my eyes–lest she mistake them for something else.