Camping with Daddy

Daddy and Momma camping in a real camper (before I was born).

Summer weather approaches, bringing with it warm memories of family camping trips at Lake Texhoma.  My father instigated these annual trips that only lasted a week, but were so packed with fun that all the years seem to melt into one hot, blissful remembrance.  Camping together as a family forces you to share the same sleeping quarters, eat meals together, and play together.  It’s like the fresh air can hold you closer than the sturdy walls of a home.

Momma’s memories are not as fond as mine.  Camping, for her, was a lot of work.  She usually had most of our things together before Daddy pulled in the driveway on his last day of work, knowing that he would be ready to go as soon as we could get everything loaded up in his beige International pickup.  My older sister, Tina, my younger brother, Brady, and I were put to work as well.  We were the fetchers; fanning out to gather items for Mom to put in saved brown grocery sacks and cardboard boxes; selecting shorts, tank tops, swimsuits, and underwear to throw in her suitcases.  These suitcases were wedding gifts to my parents.  They were hard, covered in burgundy and cream leather.  When Momma placed her thumbs on the two brass buttons and pulled them to the outside edges, the latches “clicked” open and Momma lifted the lids to reveal burgundy cloth interiors perfumed with an antique, musty smell which was not offensive to me, but smelled of summer vacations.

Momma always said that Daddy expected her to pack up the whole kitchen to take on these camping trips.  The cardboard boxes were made extremely heavy with cast iron skillets, pots and pans, utensils, old silverware, and such.  Daddy loved breakfast cooked out in the open.  We might eat sandwiches for lunch, hot dogs for supper, and roasted marshmallows for dessert, but breakfast was a full-on feast of bacon, eggs, and fried potatoes; after which, the skillets would be carted to the nearest water spout, where cold lake water was pumped for us to wash them clean.

We were all called to action when Daddy got home.  It was like thoughts of pitching that green army tent of his made him more of a “general” than usual.  Two cotton mattresses were hoisted and thrown in the bed of the truck.  We didn’t use cots.  We didn’t use air mattresses.  These older mattresses were stored away all year for this one purpose: to lie side-by-side in the floor of that old tent, Momma and Daddy sleeping in one, us three children crammed tight on the other.  Can you imagine a hot summer night…the only breeze coming through the mesh windows of the tent (maybe, if you were lucky!)…stuck between your hyperactive younger brother, whose sole purpose in life was to torture you to tears, and your older sister, who being four years older than you, made her almost too superior to be forced to sleep with you in the first place, on the other?  It was hard to get to sleep, as you can probably imagine!

Anyway…everything was loaded in the back of that truck: Coleman cookstove, lanterns, coolers, broom, kitchen, suitcases, etc.  Then, hoisted on top–last but not, least–us three kids.  Oh, we were told to sit all the way next to the cab because it was not safe to sit anywhere else!  That way, Momma could bang on the window and motion to us if we misbehaved.  My long hair would whip around all the way there.  I’m sure I looked like Bob Marley by the time we arrived, complete with my first sunburn of the week.

Daddy liked to stop on the way to take the family in Gibsons to get our vacation flip-flops that might, or might not, make it through the week.  I loved these stops! You never knew what Daddy might buy you; it just depended on how much money was burning a hole in his pocket that week.  He was generous to a fault, but knew how to show us kids the way to have a good time.  The buggy squeaked its way up and down the aisles with kerosene, lantern bulbs, large square batteries for the flashlight (a must-have for any camping trip, doubling as a middle-of-the-night light used for scouting out a safe place to pop a squat and a prop for great shadow puppets), flip-flops for one and all, water floats and inner tubes piled on top of each other.  Sometimes, you might even score a new bathing suit!

When the truck finally made its way over the Denison Dam, you knew you had arrived.  Oak trees thickly lined the park roads.  Lake air kissed your skin.  Heaven and the water beckoned…but not until camp was set up!  Young eyes were directed to scour the area for sticks and sharp rocks that might puncture the bottom of Daddy’s prized tent.  I was so afraid we would miss something!  Nothing was scarier to me as a child than scorn behind my daddy’s big brown eyes.  We swept the ground with a straw broom just to be safe.  Then, all together, we hoisted the massive tent with a shout here and a tug there, hammering down the stakes on all corners and sides.  I’m surprised we didn’t stand there and salute the thing when the assembly was completed.

When the beds were made and all things unloaded and placed in the best possible spot, we were finally allowed to change into our swimsuits.  We sat on rough, concrete picnic tables waiting for our parents to make their change.  The urgency that we had felt at getting loaded up at the house was now, somehow, shifted into low, slow gear.  It took them forever to come out of that tent!  “Can we go swimming, now?”

Finally, what I had been waiting a whole year for was happening.  We were making that family trek to the water where I would wade in the coldness until about knee deep and then, dive in, allowing my hot skin to adjust to the coolness of Lake Texhoma.  I would rise to its surface, look back to the shore, and laugh at Momma.  Daintily, she would be inching her way into the water, OOOOing and shivering, and shouting, “It’s cold!”  Whereby, my brother would begin splashing her so he could hear her scream, “Stop it!  Let me get used to it my way!”

Daddy would swim and laugh.  He always seemed happiest in those moments.  Later, he would come over to us and let us dive off his legs or shoulders.  Often, he would try to fool us by telling us that he had found something.  He would clench both hands together like he was holding something and then, when you got close enough to look, he would squeeze his palms together and squirt water in your face.

I sure do miss him and love him as much as ever!  He gave me so many gifts; only one of them being the love of camping.

Momma and Daddy at the lake.

The Robber

Pappaw and Nanny / Jess and Edith Crowell
Pappaw and Nanny / Jess and Edith Crowell

My youngest daughter, Amanda is expecting her second child.  My grandchild count is going up to number six and I am so excited.  I’m calling and texting; probably driving my poor child crazy!  As a matter of fact, I called her less than an hour ago for an update.  She had informed me earlier that she was going to get a massage, hoping that it would speed things along.  I wanted to know how it went.

I asked, “How did your surgery go?”

Amanda laughed.  “Surgery?”

I laughed, too…out of embarrassment.  “I meant to say, ‘massage’!”  I had already done this type of thing several times, today.  I hate to admit: it has become a daily thing.  It scares me.

I told my husband, James, “I hope I’m not getting Alzheimer’s.”

Really, it is a fear of mine. It is a back-seated fear that sometimes likes to hop up front and take me for a drive. When I tell people that I mean to say one word but another comes out and I don’t know why, I usually get a response along these lines:

“I do that, too.”

“It’s probably stress.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it.”

I wonder if it could be the chemicals that we put in my body to get rid of the leukemia.  I wonder if it is stress.  What I fear is the “A” word.  I’ve seen it up close and personal with my Nanny.  I know that I want no part of it.  Like I have any say in the matter!

We moved to a small farm east of Wolfe City, Texas when I was in the fifth grade.  Happiness oozed out of my pores.  I had wanted to live in the country ever since we had moved away when I was almost four.  Country life gets in your blood.  Even though I was young, I yearned for it.  I begged for it.  I prayed for it.  I wanted a horse.  I wanted to walk through the woods like I had behind my grandmother’s house.  Finally, my dream was coming true.  The joy was made even more abundant with the knowledge that Nanny and Pappaw (Edith and Jess Crowell, my father’s parents) lived inside the small town of Wolfe City.  Our house and six acres were a mere fifteen minute drive from them.  The church we would be attending was right across the street from their house on Sante Fe street.  I could walk to their house after school if I wanted and I did, many times.


My first memory of things going wrong with my Nanny was when she cooked dinner for us all, one night.  Nanny was an excellent cook.  She was a fast cook, getting a meal on the table before most people could even get their pans out.  She had cooked one of my favorites: chicken fried steak.  She had everything cooked and was getting it on the table.  She had this lost, worried look on her face as she paced around the kitchen, eyes scanning every nook and surface.  Someone asked her what was wrong.  She couldn’t find the steak she had cooked.  Our search for the missing steak seemed to last a long time, probably because I was hungry.  I remember thinking, “How could someone misplace something they had cooked?”  I don’t remember where we found the lost dinner, but I know someone did.  I didn’t starve.

Pappaw started getting blamed for lots of weird things.  Nanny became scared of him.  Now, I wonder how much of the stories were true and how many were a symptom of her condition, which was called “hardening of the arteries” at the time. I thought she would just be forgetful, like the steak incident.  I didn’t know what was to come.  None of us did.  We were not equipped with knowledge or skills to handle the years to come.  Our family had never heard of the word “Alzheimer’s”.  Daddy and his siblings decided Pappaw needed to be in the nursing home.  They were scared he was going to hurt Nanny.

Sadly, Pappaw didn’t live long in the nursing home.  He quit going to the cafeteria to eat.  He would beg to be taken home.  He cried that nobody loved him.  My uncle Billy thought he died of a broken heart.  Maybe, he did.  The day they told him he was going there, Pappaw begged my little brother, Brady, as he sat on the front porch of his home, not to let them take him there.  That day haunts me still.  Brady was in the third grade.  I wonder what Pappaw thought he could do about it.  I wonder what went through Brady’s young mind.  Pappaw was actually crying.  His generation didn’t do that much.  It was hard to watch.

Pappaw on his front porch swing. He spent many hours there, waving to people passing by.
Pappaw on his front porch swing. He spent many hours there, waving to people passing by.

As time went on, Nanny got worse.  One evening, she called our house in hysterics.  There were things crawling all over her walls.  She was scared.  Of course,  Daddy went to check on her, frightened himself of what he would find.  We all loaded up and went with him as either moral support or back-up.  I’m not sure which. When we all filed into her front door and the house had been thoroughly searched, it was decided that someone needed to stay with her.  Nanny had a glazed, kind-of crazy look in her eyes.  Daddy asked me to do it.  I was in the sixth grade.  I stayed with her.  I even slept in the same bed with her.  I laid on my back, staring into the darkness.  Every eighteen-wheeler that went down the street in front of her house reminding me that I was not in my own bed, shared with my older sister, Tina.  I was frightened.  What would I be able to do if something bad did happen.  I couldn’t drive.  She didn’t even have a car, if I could!

Eventually, she went to live with her sister-in-law.  That didn’t last long.  Eva Lee couldn’t handle her.  So, she came to live with us.

Our family lived in a small two bedroom, one bath house.  My brother slept on the enclosed back porch.  What do you do in a situation like that?  Well, in our case, Daddy moved Nanny’s bed in my room that was already shared with Tina.  He put Nanny’s on one wall, ours was pressed against the other.  All of Nanny’s extra mattresses were piled on both beds, “Princess and the Pea” style.  We had to climb up the mattress mountain every night after just witnessing the undressing of Nanny (a sight no child should see!!!).  I guess she lost her modesty along with her memory because she had no qualms about whipping off that massive brassiere without evening turning her back to us!

She became fearful of baths; trying unsuccessfully to use Johnson’s Baby Powder and Right Guard deodorant as her method of daily hygiene. Daddy would use every kind way he could think of to persuade her to bathe, but she was oblivious to the need.  She also became fearful of being alone.  My mother now had two shadows.  Nanny followed her everywhere.  The tension in our tiny house became unbearable and Nanny finally ended up in a nursing home.  Many times, she didn’t know who we were when we went to visit her.  It seemed as though she sank deeper and deeper into her past, rocking her tin box of family photos in her lap like her last remaining child.  The nurses said she would stand in the doorway of her room at night, calling for her young children to come in.  I can’t imagine the world her mind became.  I hope it was a happy one.

The disease may have a name, now but that doesn’t make it any more welcome.  It is still the robber in our homes; taking the most precious thing we own.

Nanny holding her dog, Pearlie. This was taken while she was living with us. Left to right: Me, Daddy, Momma, Nanny, and Tina with Brady and our dog, Buster in front.
Nanny holding her dog, Pearlie. This was taken while she was living with us. Left to right: Me, Daddy, Momma, Nanny, and Tina with Brady and our dog, Buster in front.