Lessons from a foiled campout

We had an old tent in the basement, one I'd bought when my son, Aaron, was 7. Over the next few years, we went on camping trips with other single-parent families from our church. We took that tent to Elk Neck State Park in Maryland, the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, and, one very cold weekend in May, the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

Then I met Steve, not a camper, and life took a new direction. We got married and, a year later, Matt was born. Aaron started junior high, and split his time between our house and his dad and stepmom's place. We took family vacations but, until one night in July, the tent stayed on a shelf in the basement.

Matt was, by now, a tall and slender 10-year-old. I drove him to our friends' house to feed their dog while they were on vacation. Tory is a large and springy springer spaniel. When we let her out of her kennel, she took off like a race horse. Matt and I followed her and then we saw it – a small tent pitched in the woods. There were ashes, too, remnants of a campfire. I told Matt then about the camping trips I'd taken with his half-brother.

"Could we get a tent, Mom?"

"We still have the one Aaron and I used to camp with." My head began to fill with plans. "Let's get it out of the basement."

Back home, we pulled the musty-smelling tent outside and set it up in "our woods," the part of our backyard farthest from the house and thick with trees. There were a few small holes in the sides but the roof was okay. Even if it rained, we'd stay dry.

As the sun set, Matt could hardly wait. He hurried up to his room to get his pillow and blanket. I'd been thinking we'd use the old quilt and pillows, remembering that spiders, ants, and dirt were also part of the camping experience. But how can a boy spend a night outside in the strange darkness without his trusty blanket? Without his own comfy bed pillow?

We got out the flashlights, tested them and replaced the batteries. We brought books to read before sleep. In the kitchen, we grabbed crackers and juice for a bedtime snack in the tent.

As we got ready for the night, I become annoyed with Steve. He took no part in our preparations or excitement – he didn't help, or care to sleep outside. This was my memory, and my adventure.

"You guys have fun. I'll just hold the fort in here. Answer the phone if it rings."

Right. Why do I have to do this alone? Aren't we supposed to be a family? I shot him my disapproval with a look.

By 8 p.m., Matt and I were ready. It was Saturday night on our country road. Apple Jacks, the closest bar, is two miles away, and the traffic was decreasing. Crickets, frogs, and owls made the only sounds. It wasn't long before we got used to their chirps, croaks, and hooting. By 9, we could barely hear them. We closed our books, turned off our flashlights, and kissed goodnight.

"WE ARE FAM-IL-EEEE!" What was that? I lifted the tent flap. Somewhere to the east, dance music split the night. There was a party going on, and they were playing our song.

Once they started, the band wouldn't stop. Matt and I tried to enjoy listening but we were too far away to make out most of the words. We tried to sleep but it was just too noisy. Couldn't listen; couldn't sleep.

"I give up!" I sighed. "Let's go back in the house. We can try again tomorrow."

"Okay, let's see what Dad is doing." Matt helped me gather up pillows, books, flashlights, and blankets. With our arms full, we trudged back into the house.

"Too bad it got so noisy out there," said Steve, munching on chips and watching the Yankees play a night game on TV.

"Can I stay up with Dad?" Matt was already snuggling next to Steve on the couch. "I want to watch the game."

It was late, and I was about to say no, but the sight of them together opened a window into my past, where my memory of camping with Aaron is stored. I saw that it was not the tent, but being together, late at night, that made the memory special. I thought of Aaron, now 25 and living his own life in another town.

"Sure, Matt." I smiled and raised my eyebrows at Steve. We're a family, even if we don't enjoy all of the same things.

Baseball is not my sport, but Steve and Matt were about to create a summer nighttime memory of their own. I took my book to bed and left them to it.

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