(My Aunt Evelyn and me and the old station wagon that my family drove cross country and back in.)
I turned 6 years old the summer that Mama and Daddy loaded up the old station wagon with six out of seven of us kids and took us on the adventure of a lifetime. Mama sewed and cooked, and cooked and sewed, in preparation and Daddy had a car top carrier specially made for everything we would need to camp our way across the United States. We were headed from our home just south of Portland, Oregon and would zig zag our way to Bath, Maine and back to Oregon, seeing 28 of the 48 continental states. Us kids would be meeting Mama's mama in Maine for the first time, our Nana, and various aunts, uncles and cousins that lived back east. That must have been how Daddy sold our practical Mama on the idea. "Hey Honey, how about I take the summer off of work, take a second mortgage out on the house, and we make our way east so we can visit your family?" I can't imagine my oh, so practical Mama, jumping on that bandwagon very fast, even if she did want to see her family. But, I was blissfully ignorant of any such discussion.
Mama slept her way across the country. I thought it was because she'd worked so hard getting us ready to go. My older sister thinks it was because she was already taking Valium for depression. Two years later Mama would check herself in to the state mental hospital, where they'd dope her up and send electric shocks into her brain, thinking that's what would make her want to face her life again. The summer I turned six, I had no inkling of the dark time that was to come for our family. I knew Mama and Daddy fought and argued a lot, I knew it made my stomach knot up to the point I wanted to throw up, but I didn't know why they argued. And I certainly didn't know that while Mama was in the hospital, Daddy would fall in love with someone else and decide to leave.
All I knew then, was long, hot hours in the back seat of that old station wagon crowded between my siblings and nights of us all lined up in sleeping bags in that big, old tent that I think Daddy got at the Army surplus store, interspersed with stops all along the way, seeing the width and breadth of the U.S. in ways few people get to experience.
Daddy wasn't a "get in, sit back and shut up" kind of driver. He was a, "oh there's a sign that says down this road is the world's biggest thingamajig and off we'd go to see what there was to see" type guy. We saw the Grand Canyon and the Corn Palace, Old Faithful and the bears of Yellowstone Park, and a myriad of well know and lesser known wonders. That's a gift that I got from my Daddy, a sense of wonder. From my Mama, I got my need to feel safe and secure, and wonder anchored with a little bit of practicality and common sense isn't such a bad combination.
On the road we munched on Mama's homemade fried chicken and peanut butter cookies. Those cookies somehow got stored too close to the gas can and ended up tasting more like gas than peanut butter. But, Mama had worked hard baking all those cookies, and in a family our size you didn't just throw food away. Let's just say, I think it wasn't 'til I was full grown that I ate another peanut butter cookie.
We must have looked a fright by the time we all arrived in Maine. I have a foggy memory of us getting a hotel room with a tub, so we all could bathe before we met our Nana for the first time. I think Mama washed all of our clothes at the laundromat, too.
I have nothing but happy memories of those days in Maine, meeting Mama's family. If the eight of us were a bit of an overwhelming bunch of company to any of them, I never sensed it. Nana made us big, soft molasses cookies and loaves of soft, white homemade bread. She talked with a heavy accent and would still break into her Acadian French on occasion. That made her all the more fascinating to me.
Then there was my Aunt Evelyn from New York, she talked with a thick Brooklyn accent, and she smoked cigarettes and could blow smoke rings. Mama and Daddy took us to a church that frowned on smoking, but Aunt Evelyn and those smoke rings were so amazing to my little brother and I that we played smoking with pretzels sticks for months after meeting her.
My sixth birthday, the birthday that I celebrated in Maine that summer, is the only birthday of my childhood that I can clearly remember. I know my other birthdays were celebrated, I know I got presents on my other birthdays, but all of them have vanished from my mind. The stuffed dog whose tummy unzipped and inside were little stuffed stuffed puppies and the plastic bangle bracelets that I got that August in Maine, I still clearly remember.
For me, that summer is the highlight of the days when Mama and Daddy still lived together. Somehow, in my little girl heart and mind, Maine became the place where stability and happiness was. Mama's family back there captured my heart and then in my mind morphed into these unrealistic people who had only happy lives, rather like Ward and June Cleaver. Maine became the place I dreamed about. Once I learned to read, I devoured every book about Maine. Robert McCloskey's children's books made my heart stir and I wanted to join Sal and her mother as they picked wild Maine blueberries in the woods, or join her and her father as they dug for clams to use in chowder for their evening supper.
I think every little boy and every little girl have a childhood dream of what they want to be or do. Our dreams most often change as we age, the little boy who wanted to be a cowboy grows up to become a policeman, the little girl who wanted to be a ballerina becomes a school teacher. Me, my childhood dreams are still with me, I still dream of a cottage by the sea. I still dream the dreams of that little six year old girl, of picking wild Maine blueberries in the woods, or digging clams for my supper. Fifty years later, I still dream.