During the writing retreat I led at Windhorse Farm in Nova Scotia last May, I guided participants to write a memoir essay, adding and shaping each day as we discussed aspects of good writing. This is Violet’s.
By Violet Moran
“You’re going camping with me this weekend,” asserted my good friend Alice, surprising me because neither of us were campers. Discussion revealed that Alice had planned to go camping with Bob, her husband who three years ago had packed up his belongings while she was at a conference and surprised her with his announcement that he wanted a divorce. I knew that Alice would take him back if there ever was a chance. Now she thought there was a chance
She had paid for a campsite on the sand dunes of Lake Michigan for them to spend a weekend together. And Bob at the last minute canceled out. It was a strange plan to get him back since neither of them had ever been campers. I couldn’t picture them having a romantic weekend camping considering their age, excess weight and poor health. But that had been Alice’s plan and she was darned if she was going to have paid for a campsite and not make use of it. I suppose this same frugality prevented her from reserving a room at a romantic hotel with a better chance of getting Bob back.
Alice was a bit of a character who could make unexpected statements, such as telling people the reason she asked to transfer back onto the road surveying health care institutions was because it was too difficult to have an affair with the Culligan Man if she had to stay at home in Madison. Alice came up with quirky ideas such as asking friends to help with the wedding dinner she had already promised an impoverished woman in her church. Or preparing a party for the private owners of herin-lawsCemetery Association. When we arrived to help we might find that Alice had not shopped or prepped in advance. I know if I did the same thing my friends would be angry; but when it involved Alice such things just became humorous stories that only made Alice more endearing.
Alice and I were both nurses who had previously worked together and remained close friends. She became a state surveyor of hospitals and nursing homes while I started my own consulting business. I had recently left my husband so I was happy to sometimes join her at a nice B&B where she was staying while investigating health-care complaints. Time spent with Alice was always an enjoyable change of pace. I could do my work at the B&B while she was surveying a facility or investigating a physician.
Alice’s appearance differed from the way I thought a high-level state surveyor ought to look. She dressed to be comfortable — in loose-fitting, well-worn slacks and top, along with heavy woolen socks showing through her Birkenstocks. Alice was overweight with a kindly round face framed by short, wavy grey hair. She was quick to smile and laugh. She dressed for personal comfort, and also because she wouldn’t spend the money necessary to buy professional attire. She consciously made use of her persona. She told me, “When I go in to do a survey, everyone looks at me as the dumpy, not-too-smart, good old Grandma who lives next door.” As expected, staff were not frightened of her and would approach her to reveal secrets of the facility. She delighted in the fact that administrators were usually astonished to hear at the exit report all the problems that she had uncovered. I enjoyed hearing her stories.
In preparation for our camping trip, Alice, consistently frugal, borrowed a tent from a co-worker who said she had it for many years but had never taken it out of the box. The tent was an old design that required you to insert aluminum rods, some straight and some hinged. There were no instructions anywhere and we had a horrible time setting it up. We were also in a hurry because we had stopped to visit a friend on the way and it now was starting to grow dark. After many insertions and re-insertions of aluminum rods, we started being irritable with each other. When we finally finished setting up the tent, we discovered a rain cover in the box. I’d had it with that cheap tent and I angrily said that I wasn’t spending any more time on that damn tent, I didn’t know what an f__ing rain cover would do, and it didn’t feel like it was going to rain anyway. This was before we had smart phones with a weather app giving hourly weather reports.
We moved on to making a fire, having a little wine and unpacking the extravagant food we had planned for dinner and breakfast. We had made out the gourmet menu a few days ago identifying which of us was responsible to bring each item. We quickly discovered that we both brought items from the same list and were missing some important foods such as steaks, eggs and bacon. There was disbelief and some blaming over which of us had made the wrong list. But we then proceeded to make-do with what we had — eating a lot of potatoes, and finishing off another bottle of wine.
By the time we finished eating it was dark and late enough to go to bed. We unrolled our sleeping bags on the thin floor of the tent because, of course, Alice thought renting cots would have been an unnecessary expense.
As you have probably expected by now, it rained heavily during the night. I became aware that there was a slight slope of the ground under our tent and I was on the downward side. Water was coming in and soaking my sleeping bag. Since there wasn’t a rain cover over the tent, water also started dripping down through the ceiling. For some reason, maybe Karma, the dripping occurred only on my side of the tent. Alice was using a CPAP machine with 2 or 3 long electric extension cords. We had some scares from the lightning and rain while disconnecting the equipment and putting it into the car where it would be dry. I was wet and cold and angry, as well as sleepless.
The rain stopped as the sun began to rise and the air was nice and warm. It was going to be a beautiful day. We cooked a make-shift breakfast with our odd leftovers and laid our sleeping bags in the sun to dry while we went for a long walk along Lake Michigan. Walking on the sand dunes made me feel calm and happy that I was there. By the time we returned, our sleeping bags were slightly less wet and we decided to take a nap before driving back to Madison.
You get only one guess of what happened next. Yes, it suddenly started raining heavily again. We had to take down the tent and pack everything into the car while the rain poured down.
We drove home in silence, neither of us wanting to end our friendship by discussing this traumatic weekend. Neither of us ever went camping again. And Bob did not re-unite with Alice. Although I would have been so happy if he had been subjected to the same discomfort I endured on this camping trip with Alice since it was all hisfault in the first place.
© 2019 Violet Suta Moran
Violet grew up on a farm in Montana just 8 miles from the Canadian border and about 70 miles east of Glacier Park. After getting a degree in nursing at Montana State University in Bozeman, she literally picked Madison, Wisconsin off the map as the first place she was going “on my trip around the world.” Delayed by marriage, 3 children and administrative positions in facilities including University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, trips to many different countries came later. For the last 20 years before retiring, Violet ran her own nurse consulting business. In retirement she enjoys travel, dance, and jazz, often in combination.