About
Share This
woods

Rumpelstiltskin

For my parents, Joseph and Doris Sargent, on their Golden Anniversary

December 2001 
 
Andrea has always liked to sort the poles. While her brothers Bradford and Daniel unroll the tent, stretch its corners, and force the bent spikes into the forest loam, our daughter separates the reds, greens and blues. Forty years ago in our Costa Mesa living room my parents used colored tape to distinguish between the different rods of their new tent. How could they have ever known that, decades later, those colors would help their grandchildren raise cover in the Maine woods?
 
Whenever we roll out the old canvas, we must be a diversion for the neighboring campers, most of them with their fiberglass frames and nylon canopies. Our hollow aluminum poles, with their flute holes and plugs, probably seem as strange as a slide rule. But our kids have loved the ritual. For us, the second-generation tent, with all of its rips, patches and arthritic zippers, is as much ceremony as shelter. Like my mother, we still sweep sand and pine needles off the cloth floor with antiseptic vigor, though the old canvas no doubt keeps its secrets. Somewhere in the fibers there must be granite dust left over from Yosemite—perhaps from the night when my parents huddled with us as a grizzly eviscerated an ice chest near Glacier Point. In some corner there must be red clay from the manzanita trails above Julian or the odor of crushed eucalyptus leaves from Morro Bay.
 
On winter nights at home in Massachusetts Andrea and I will often tell each other stories as I try to help her drift to sleep. We hear the gutters creak with the weight of the snow or listen to the rain ricochet off the frozen roof. Now and then, during a January thaw, the rainfall will strip the snow pack in the yard, exposing spots of matted grass, like batches of straw in the moonlight. Whenever the headlights pass, the oaks waive their limbs across the window, like some specter from the Brothers Grimm. We listen for the wildlife—mostly squirrels, but also a few skunks and deer, or the coyotes we usually mistake for wolves. Sometimes, pressed for invention, I simply repeat stories I learned when young, including a few Disney re-treds or the wise-cracking Rumpelstiltskin my scout troupe once performed at an elementary school. I have cherished those nights, resting beside my eight-year-old daughter, surrounded by woods, the darkness filled with the cries of an owl or the stillness worthy of another story.   
 
There were plenty of stories in that old tent, most of them told by flashlight. Three of us, all brothers, in sleeping bags, listened as my mother read another mystery, even as we squirmed on air mattresses that always seemed to go flat before dawn. I lost some endings because I often drifted to sleep before the dénouement, usually while the propane lantern outside was visible through the mosquito netting. On most occasions, Dad was still out there washing the cups, hunting up the lost playing cards, and dousing the embers and the white logs. I had no idea, then, of the joy of those lonely duties.
 
Camping does squeeze a family into close quarters. For my mother, life with three growing boys in a tent no doubt became a weary cloister. But those California trips ignited a desire in all of us to explore the state they loved. I still recall the vast scope of the Mojave Desert and the edges of the Salton Sea that I saw with my father after a hike up Mount Jacinto. Once back home I would fall asleep envisioning future walks in the Sierras, a week or so on the John Muir Trail, or summer biking along the Pacific coast. Some of my best memories are roads not taken, except in my mind.
 
Such reveries, I know, were also about breaking away—about hopes for my own travels and prospects beyond the family campsite. A few of those visions I readily shared with my family; a few others I still store somewhere among my life’s loose ends. Yet, in retrospect, it is easy to see that those thoughts, for all their pretense of independence, were often little more than the urge to enter the world Mom and Dad uncovered for us in that canvas shelter. Their hospitality, at its best, was not insular, but expansive: a tender nudge to get out there and discover something magical. So much of what I still hope to enjoy in this life, to share with my own children, spins out from the wonder at the sight of sea lions at Point Lobos, the redwoods at Calaveras, and the flashlight on the last few pages. 
 
At some point in childhood reading stories becomes less a family ritual than a refuge for private sorrows and dreams. We begin to talk of books because they spare us from fully disclosing our losses and yearnings. Literature allows us to speak in code. My mother never says much about her Nebraska youth. She lets the stories of Willa Cather bring me closer to the vast plains that took her father during the Depression and still moves her even now. Somewhere between the campsites and college I found my own love of reading and my own tastes, but many of the books I still value most are the paperbacks that she has given me—Cather, Wharton, Delderfield, and Morrison—with her prompt endorsement. Some of her favorites keep re-emerging, wrapped up as gifts for her grandchildren.
 
Those old aluminum poles are golden now: memory is usually the best alchemy. One day, I hope, Andrea will help her own children assemble them. By then, she will have her own stories to tell, of nights with her parents near Moosehead Lake or walks with her brothers on the Long Beach pier. It won’t be long before our father-daughter readings will give way to a teenager’s private musings in her own room. She will soon spin her own tales, far beyond any narratives I choose for her. All the while, the old canvas tent will be stacked away in the loft of our garage, a little musty and threadbare, but still able to deflect pine needles and to shelter dreams. Many of those dreams, just like mine, she will harbor too deeply to be named.