The scent of yarrow always takes me back to
an abandoned sawmill when I first became homeless.
Writing childhood memoir is not for the faint of heart. I’m often seeking inspiration for the silver lining in the lonelier parts of my story. That’s what made me pack a lunch and head up to Mount Ashland with my husband last summer. He intended to hike, while I planned to work on a chapter in my book. As the car wound its way up the mountain, I noticed the wildflowers were more abundant than other years and I rolled down the window to follow their scent up the mountain and back in time.
Grouse Gap is a stop along the Pacific Crest Trail that you can also access by car. It’s a majestic setting where the altitude provides a respite from the hot valley below on a summer day. When the sky is cloudless, you can almost touch Mount Shasta. We arrived at the shelter, to discover a pickup camper parked in our favorite spot. There was a small tent next to it. The inhabitants appeared to be staying for a while, and I’ll admit I was a little peeved to see them spreading their stuff across the entire picnic area including the shelter where they’d already built a roaring fire.
As we searched for a place to set up our chairs, my mind was already in my book. I remembered how my eight-year-old self, woke up in a tent beside a shelter and a field of wildflowers. The similarities were uncanny. It was a confusing time because it seems we’d left our house and became homeless overnight even though no one used the word. I remember Mama acting very strange and whispering, “I guess we’ll just have to make do until we can live like normal people again.”
Despite the shock of trading a house with bed and toys for sleeping in a tent, I embraced the new adventure with wonder and discovered the beauty around me. Mama suggested we pretend like we were at a summer camp. I was the oldest, and since none of us four kids had ever been to a summer camp before, it wasn’t hard to convince us to play the game. We exulted every time we washed our dishes in the teal camping sink or swept out the tent or folded our clothes and sleeping bags. At the time, it never occurred to me this was Mama’s ingenious way of getting us to do our chores.
As I set up my picnic, a young girl came out the camper to stare at me.
“What a lot of wildflowers! Have you counted how many different kinds are around us?”
She shook her head. “I think there might be too many bees to go near them.”
I chuckled. I was once a girl known to scream at any insect, but I reassured her the bees were probably more scared of her. Her only response was to dart off into the woods.
The highlight of “summer camp” back at the abandoned sawmill was “hiking” around the field of wildflowers next to the shelter. Every once in a while, I’d run back to ask Mama and about her summer camp experience to make sure mine was up to par. Things were exquisite in summer-camp-land; the sky was azure, jewels sparkled on a million dewy necklaces, birds sang arias, and I danced in a meadow with a million glorious wildflowers waving their stems around me.
The little girl at Grouse Gap reappeared. She was hauling a large limb behind her father who had an armload of wood. It reminded me of the way I used to help my dad at that age. Of course, looking back I realize I couldn’t be much help to a man who was hiding his family in the woods from bill collectors. I remember how Mama had to hush me every time I used my “outdoor voice” because she was afraid someone might hear us and discover we were squatting on the land.
The campers walked back and forth, passing me several times, carrying broken branches and pieces of a hollowed log which they stacked in the shelter to fortify their fire. When the father walked past the third time, he said, “Hello.” He was blond, but his skin was dark from working outside in the sun much like my father’s.
Motioning toward the fire, I asked, “Are you guys cold?”
“Not while the sun’s shining, but when we left the freeway last night, it was 103 degrees. By the time we got up here, it was dark and only 53 degrees. It’s hard to sleep in the cold, but we’re glad for a free place to stay.” Then as if I had asked, he motioned to the camper. “My wife’s sleeping now, she sleeps a lot. I guess she’s tired.”
“Where are you from?”
“Nebraska by way of Florida and California. We’re hoping to find the right place to settle down.”
My heart empathized with his wife, and I felt a kinship with his daughter, but it was hard to know what to say. I knew the rules. Fathers–even homeless fathers, have their pride.
“It’s a beautiful spot to camp.”
“Yeah, it’s the first time in three days we’ve been able to get out of the pickup and stretch our legs.”
He went back to scrounge for more wood, while I went back to my writing.
Like greedy hummingbirds, my sister and I had flitted from flower to flower across the meadow, gathering armloads of yarrow and purple fireweed, before racing back to place our bounty in Mama’s arms.
I sniffed my fingers. The yarrow was pungent and left its spicy scent on my hands. Mama’s eyes twinkled in love as she inspected each flower thoroughly. Then, in an eerie tone of voice, she said, “Watch out for spiders.”
I was surprised. “Spiders like flowers?”
“Yes,” Mama’s shoulders gave a slight shudder when she said it. “But they don’t like you. You’ve got to get rid of them before they get to you. The only good one’s a dead one.”
A dark cloud passed over the sun. Purple and white flowers fell to the ground. That’s why Mama had been so quiet. There were two things Mama despised above everything else–germs and spiders. I warily glanced across the field of flowers and for the first time, I noticed fat, speckled spiders spinning in their webs. They were everywhere in the bushes and trees all around us. A few were even claiming space in the shelter. What appeared to be a fairyland of wildflowers and sparkling jewel necklaces, was a field of terror to Mama.
The girl at Grouse Gap interrupted my thoughts when she brought me a bouquet of wildflowers. Like Mama, I accepted them with a gracious smile. I felt touched by her willingness to brave the bees for a stranger like me.
She stared at my lunch. Then I remembered I had pastries, so I opened the cooler and handed her the entire box.
“Why don’t you take these to your mom?”
She showed no emotion. I wondered if she even liked pastries, but a few minutes later I saw her hauling wood in one hand while she savored an apple turnover with the other. A younger girl came running out of the trailer with a Danish and waved at me.
When their father stopped to catch his breath from hauling a large log up the hill, he sat down on a stump near me and stared at the wildflowers which were already starting to wilt in the cup holder on my chair. I wanted to let him know I understood a little of his plight.
“My family once lived at an abandoned sawmill next to a field of wildflowers when I was about your daughter’s age.”
He slowly smiled, and then I could tell he was opening up his mouth to share his story.
“I grew up in a camp trailer down by the river with my parents and two sisters. It wasn’t all that fun. My dad used to beat the hell out of me, and the kids at school called us river rats. I remember a teacher giving me the good advice to use the gym’s showers before school, and that helped a little.”
He paused. I sensed his childhood scars while he continued.
“We got along okay, until one day our trailer caught fire and exploded taking the old pickup–our only transportation with it. Everything went downhill from there – first my parent’s divorced, then foster homes, bullying, more beatings from strangers and finally I dropped out of school and ran away.”
I wanted to comfort the young boy he’d once been, but again I came up with nothing to say, so I sat with his sadness.
After a moment, he gave a cynical laugh. “Glad to be in a better place now.”
“Where are you guys headed?”
“Well, just about anywhere. I’m looking for work in construction, and I want to make sure we get the girls in school by the time school starts.”
I glanced at his daughters who were now doing cartwheels and looking my direction. My heart ached for them. How would they be treated at school? And would they be able to settle down in the next couple months?
“We never carry cash, but if there is something you need, let us know, we’ll go down to Ashland and get it for you.”
“Oh no, thank you, ma’am, that won’t be necessary, I’ve already been down there with a sign and made $130 to fill the tank and buy a little food to keep us going. We’ll be fine.”
I bit my tongue. I realized he didn’t want charity from me, but he’d be glad to swap stories like an equal, so I shared another of my stories before he went back to his wood collecting.
Despite his caution not to help, when my husband got back, I whispered, “If those girls don’t have any marshmallows or hot dogs to roast, I feel like driving down to buy them some groceries.”
The intimate stories of strangers always inspire me, but this magic cocktail–the shelter, the field of wildflowers, the scent of the yarrow mixed with aromatic wood and this homeless family, brought my heart full circle. I felt like I was once again camping in uncertainty with my own family in the shelter of that old abandoned sawmill over forty years ago. As cool breeze rushed past my face, I felt a whisper as if the God of the homeless was reminding me how he would provide for these falling sparrows despite my concerns.
I thought about women who are homeless and how they get that way. Is it sudden? Do they bring it with them from former scars that increase their chances of marrying men who are always looking for a better view? My mother had actively protected me and made an adventure out of our situation, but I questioned if this mother was able to do the same. I wondered if she was depressed, checked out–or on drugs. I’d like to have met her, but she never showed up. Two fathers both with dreams and instability, two young girls both discovering the world with wide-eyed wonder, two mothers with different responses to being homeless – one watching and protecting – the other checking out.
Just before we left, she offered me a roasted marshmallow framed with a dirty hand. I hesitated.
I wanted to give this girl and the little girl inside of me the same advice. You have intrinsic worth just like a wildflower. You don’t have to give people gifts or please them to be loved because you’re already worthy–whether you live in a tent, a motel, a shelter or a house. It was a message this little girl probably wasn’t ready to hear, but a truth my mature heart always needs to remember.
“Would you like one?”
It was a deep golden tan on the outside, and I could tell it was melted to gooey perfection on the inside. It was the kind of marshmallow I’d love to eat slowly by tearing it open to suck out the creamy white filling before savoring the gold on the outside. If only she hadn’t offered it with fingers that had been hauling wood, dancing across the ground in cartwheels, or heaven forbid, been to the outhouse.
I stared at the pitch stain on her arm and waited as long as I could. Her eyes were staring at mine. We stood suspended between my childhood and hers. In one moment it would be over, I could say no, and we would go our separate ways, or I could accept.
I screamed up a silent prayer for Jesus to disinfect it; then I partook of the Eucharist she offered. It was high communion between daughters of fathers who don’t have work and live in campgrounds between houses. It was a celebration of the hope to find a better life.
As I swallowed the sugary manna, she sighed with satisfaction. “That was the first time I’ve ever roasted one by myself, was it good?”
I smiled back through sticky lips. “Yes, I believe that was the best marshmallow I’ve ever tasted!”