November 17, 2008 at 5:44 am Leave a comment

If you asked someone who knew me well whether I liked camping, they would probably say ‘no – definitely not’.  This is an understandable response given my attitude towards invitations to go camping;  but it’s not entirely true.  Dare I say, that the simple act of camping is a complex one for me.

Firstly, let me just put all the debate to bed by saying that I have no problem with a less than luxurious weekend.  All I ask is that there is facility to bathe (I don’t mind if it is cold water only!) and to toilet.  If you gave me a choice between a luxurious weekend in a CBD hotel, complete with wine and chocolates and spa…  or a quiet camping weekend in the bush near a creek…  I would chose the camping.

(Ok, which city, what is on it’s art gallery, and am I going to get bitten to death by midgies camping? are important considerations before I should make such a broad statement!)

So here is what I really puts me off camping:  pure cost benefit analysis.  That is to say, the effort and cost of the amount of stuff needed to pack for two days camping generally outweighs the benefits and joy of camping for me.  I have kids.  That is a LOT of stuff to pack for just two days.

And since I’m raising the enjoyment factor, when you have children, is camping *really* that relaxing?  Am I not still cooking, cleaning and caring for them?  Worrying about their whereabouts?  Being nagged that they are bored?  Struggling to get them to go to bed so that I can have a few moments to myself…  So it’s just like at home, except I get the added joy of having to unpack the car and clean up when I get home…

Narrowing down my camping options further, were I invited to a 4 day camping trip by other people who also had kids, and we were going to a site that had toilets and allowed campfires…  YES, I would go camping.

All of this is still sounding negative and like an excuse (I think I make a legitimate point…) so I will tell you a camping story, which, truth be told, has made it hard for me tolerate small 3-man tents and the smell of damp tent canvas…

It was the Easter long weekend of 1993.  Our family was camping at a privately owned bushland site set amongst the ranges near the NSW and Qld border.  The site was spacious, with adequate toilet and shower facilities, and a running creek that had small rapids perfect for rubber tyres.  We’d been here before, but this time Dad’s cousin and his family joined us.

Our family camped a lot.  Dad was always happy to get out under the stars; happy to set up camp with his very large and expensive canvas tent; and enjoyed nothing more than sitting about the campfire, beer in hand, watching the flames flicker.   Mum, I’m sure, would have preferred a luxurious hotel.   But she always went along, happy to play the role of hostess.  I think she revelled in having a captive audience to lavish upon them tales of her own self importance.

My siblings and I had differing views on camping.  I was often left out whether I went or not.   I was 13 – too young to integrate with the adult conversations;  too old to enjoy the company of the younger children.   For the past two years I hadn’t always gone with the family.  The weekends away meant that I missed a club or regional team hockey or softball games, so I began to stay at a friend’s in order to play my matches.  I was quite accustomed to my parents not attending any of the matches.

My siblings still loved camping.  Being only 7 and 8 years old, camping was an adventure for them and most trips there were other children their age to play with.  This Easter trip was no exception.  Our cousins, also a boy and a girl, were 6 and 8.

On this particular trip, to entice me along, Mum suggested I invite my best friend along.   So there we all were:  Mum, Dad and my siblings in the large tent;  Doug, Jackie and their children in another large tent; my friend Deborah and I set up in a small 3 man tent; and a large tarped area set up for dining; all arranged in a C shape about the campfire.

This was the first time in months – years? – that all my family had gone camping, and it was to be our last trip.

I am not sure how it started.  I do know that what occurred that night had been built up over days, if not months.  It was like a summer storm ambling in from the horizon, bearing down on you with humidity, and all you can do is just wait for it to unfold.    The storm hit Good Friday night.

My mother had been drinking.  She likes to drink.  Cask wine is her drink of choice.  I would like to say that it was because we were camping and that the nature of camping is to sit about the fire drinking…  but my mother likes to drink.  Regularly.

By 9pm she’d been drinking casually for at least 7 hours.  Maybe more.  Who can tell?  Camping is a little timeless like that.  Regardless, she was in an obnoxious mood, the sort that only alcohol can induce;  a mix of self pity, high self worth, self righteousness, and regrets.  It’s a lethal combination that results in a cruel acid tongue.  That night was no exception.

It was Jackie, my Dad’s cousin’s wife, who threw the first attacking blow.  Somewhere, somehow, the conversation had veered to my mother’s parenting skills (I suspect mother was tooting her horn about her brilliance as a parent).  Jackie called her on it.  In fact, she went further than that.  She told my mother that she does little for her children and that it’s her 13 year old daughter raising them;  that she sits about and lords the oldest child into serving her;  that she should be grateful that her 13 year old daughter is doing such a good job at raising her children for her, but that it’s not fair to her, so grow up.

They were standing up by now, facing another, chests puffed.  My mother wouldn’t hear or accept a bar of it, and when cornered with the truth, she retreats to below-the-belt comments and childish games.  Mum reacts by throwing her glass of wine at Jackie.

Throughout all this my dad sat silent, sipping his beer or scotch.  He always shies away from conflict, and so sat there saying nothing;  neither agreeing or disagreeing.  This angered mum.    When Jackie walked away from the fight, Mum had only just started and so she turned her attention to Dad.

“Why didn’t you stand up for me?!  You are so gutless.  So what?  Do you agree with her?… ”

And so the center of the storm hit with all the ferocity its gray clouds promised when it sat on the horizon.  What happened next is a blur.  My mother continued yelling and was increasingly out of control and abusive.  My father eventually intervened and physically pushed her away, telling her to shut up and sleep it off.  In her drunken state, Mum stumbled backwards and this is where she sat, rocking herself through her sobs.

With everyone back in their corners, I console Deborah who, alongside me, had heard everything through our thin canvas tent walls.  I’d been peeping out ready to intervene as soon as the inevitable violence hit.  Shocked and dazed, Deborah was crying.

I then sit by Mum and help her rock herself to calm.  My mother’s childhood was full of physical abuse, and to this day, her response to violence inflicted on her is that of glazed eyed, rocking.  So there we sat.  Mum on her bottom, her arms around her chest, sobbing so uncontrollably that she is almost hyperventilating, and looking at me with the glazed eyes.  She doesn’t recognise me at first.  I kneel behind her and hold her and whisper “shhh shhh shhh” until she comes around.  We’ve been here many times before.

In the aftermath of the storm, Mum chooses to lock herself in the car to sleep.  I am confused as to what she is afraid of.  My dad isn’t violent and were she not so drunk, she wouldn’t have construed his actions as such or even stumbled so hard.  None the less, she has locked herself in the car.

I have cleaned the campsite a little.  Removed the broken glasses and tried to sleep.  Dad is still up drinking, quietly watching the flames.  I don’t remember thinking so at the time, but I’m sure his face would have been one of distaste.

In the wee hours of the morning, Mum stumbles into my tent.  She is cold and nestles in with Deborah and I.  There isn’t enough room.  It is a restless, divided night.

In the morning I wake to find that Mum has gone.  I don’t look for her.  Neither does dad – he is passed out in his tent.  I watch as the blue Commodore belonging to a family friend comes and I see Mum get in and leave.  I tell my siblings that Mum went home sick.   Later that day, Deborah also goes home, distraught and overwhelmed.

It’s Easter Saturday.  The atmosphere is lighter, happier, and there are clear blue skies.  The storm that had been looming, had completely passed and nobody spoke of it.  I carry on doing all that I was already doing;  I organise for the kids to shower, I make them breakfast and later lunch and dinner.  Dad sleeps away half the morning and later is too hung-over to help.  Much later, he is too drunk again.

That evening before I put the kids to bed and we set up our Easter boxes;  we fill our little boxes with dried grass, creating a nest for the Easter Bunny.  I wait until the kids are asleep and  I lay out their Easter eggs and presents.  I enjoy that there is no charade with my mother;  no pretence that she is doing it.

I phone Mum Easter Sunday.  I don’t really care to, but I know that it means something to her that I am not on sides.  Thing is, I was heavily sided with my dad at that stage.  He was my refuge, the person I could be with and say “I don’t want to go home to the Witch”  and so we would linger, driving anywhere but home.  Mum was calm and cautious.   She asked if Dad was still a prick, and if Jackie was a still a sticky nosed bitch.

We didn’t shorten our trip following Mum’s high drama exit.  We left sometime Easter Monday and as we drove home, the storm clouds appeared the horizon.  There was less humidity, but gray rain clouds none the less.

A few weeks after, Dad moved out.

I have not been camping since.


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