I’m eating rice krispies when my mother asks me whether I’d like to go to church camp. She pours corn flakes for my little sister and douses them with milk. It’s March and snow is piled on the window sill. Frost has tooled lace on the glass.
“When?” I ask.
Next summer seems like an eternity away. First comes Easter, then my birthday in May, then summer. My brother is swinging his legs under the table. He kicks me accidentally and I kick him back. So he kicks me on purpose and I kick him back hard.
“Kids from lots of different churches will be there. It lasts for a week.”
My brother pokes me on the shoulder and I punch him on the arm.
“Stop it, you two,” Mother orders. Then she pulls out a chair and sits down with her bowl of Wheaties. “Why don’t you think about it for a while,” she suggests shrewdly.
I had never been separated from my parents over night. But church camp offered the fabulous and real possibility of life without my brother and sister and without my parents. No one would force me to pick the peas, or eat my slimy kohlrabi, or dry the ugly dishes, or go to bed while it was still light. Six whole days of freedom stretched before me like a veritable midway of circus rides. I could swim whenever I wanted, including after lunch. My reading reveries wouldn’t be interrupted by my mother telling me to go outside and get fresh air. I could get by eating nothing but cookies, and stay up all night.
The Monday I set out for camp, my mother had to leave for work at seven. I was already up and dressed. I sat on my parents’ bed watching her pull on her white nylons and adjust the seams. She powdered her chest above her bra and stepped into her nurse’s uniform. My father handed her the lunch he had packed for her and then we walked behind her to the car. Her nylons made a reassuring whishing sound as she walked, but when she turned around to say goodbye, her face registered inclement weather. She hugged me for several seconds longer than normal, then got into the car and twisted the key in the ignition. The starter motor turned over, but she idled in the driveway, rolled down the window, stuck her head out, and said, Don’t forget your sweater.
She backed the car a few feet, then stopped. Give her a little money, she said to my father. He pulled out his wallet and handed me two dollars. You’ll be okay, she told me, flicking her head quickly. Then she hastily backed out. I felt delighted that she was going to miss me. It gave me a sense of power.
My father helped me fold and pack my Sunday dresses in our tan suitcase because I wanted to look cool at camp. He had a heart condition, as my parents called it, which is why he’d sold his general store in Parkers Prairie, Minnesota and moved us to Lincoln, Nebraska, where my mother could get work. In our new city he cheerfully scouted stores and vegetable markets for the family groceries, tended us kids, and sewed small cheesecloth bags of herbs for his savory vegetable soup. That fall he had poured his energy into helping to establish The Lincoln Christian School in a church basement.
As I watched my princely sandy-haired father latch the suitcase with his freckled hands and buckle a belt around it, I began to feel slightly queasy. I walked downstairs, carefully gripping the hand rail. I stood beside my favorite spot in our back yard by the tiger lilies. Closing my eyes, I tried to recover the reckless pleasure of being without any parents for a week, but I felt seasick, as if I were standing in a violently rocking rowboat. The waves, pulling me farther from the shore, were not about to stop. I was going to camp.
A tenuous bunch of authorities ruled over us campers. There was a director named Pastor Ray, who looked slightly goofy in his tight rayon shirt and brown pants. A few parental volunteers stood around Pastor Ray, and a squadron of gangly kids worked behind folding tables. They looked about the age of the high-schoolers I knew from church. We were standing around a clearing in the woods. Cabins were scattered around the edge, in the trees. Above their doors, on posters, fat, cloud-shaped magic marker letters spelled out: The Purple Dragons, The Holy Ghosts, and Nancy’s Storm Troopers. One was called Cabin Six. I didn’t want to be assigned to Cabin Six, which I believed must have something wrong with it.
Our counselors shoved one another, hooting and laughing as they checked off our names, allotted us sheets and pillows, and handed us our schedules,. They ebbed and flowed like water, losing track of us briefly, retreating, whispering, buzzing, swarming in a group, then remembering their jobs, returning to their posts. I didn’t know anyone except Audrey Jones, the friend of our family who had driven me to camp with her daughter, Marilyn. She was talking with the other parent-volunteers.
Other campers went off with their friends, laughing and gabbing, holding their assignment sheets. I was on my own, literally struck dumb by the high-jinks of the counselors. I didn’t know which line to stand in and I was too shy to ask. Hoping I was right, I added myself to the longest line. When I got to the front, I faced a tousle-haired high school boy. “Uh, I’m here for camp,” was my brilliant opening. My words sounded far away and disconnected from me, like the voice of a ventriloquist.
Accepting the schedule and my cabin assignment and the whole unwieldy welcome packet, I juggled everything with my suitcase to the edge of the clearing where I stopped and put it all down in the brown pine needles. Then I stooped over and picked up the documents one at a time. I examined each, looking for some code explaining what I should do next. Surreptitiously I watched other campers, trying to guess what the other girls were doing.
Many of them were rushing gracefully into one another’s arms, or screaming together with laughter as they crossed the clearing in small gangs. That day, and truthfully every day after that, I watched with stupefied bewilderment as the other girls performed simple actions such as introducing themselves, or telling jokes, or playing volleyball, or testifying. Many of them did these things with such elegance that I believed I had stumbled into a camp where everyone except me was destined to become Miss America.
The camp schedule started with reveille, ran through breakfast, hymn sing, Bible study, lunch, quiet time, sports, crafts, free time, dinner, revival meeting, and campfire. It ended with taps. I didn’t know what any of these things were. I discovered the next day. Later I realized the schedule was something Pastor Ray could show our parents if they had any questions. In practice, the drumbeat of the schedule turned out to be more irregular than it appeared on paper. Above it I could always hear the soaring descant, the melody, the troubled, throbbing, torrid libretto of our counselors’ personal lives.
I spotted the necklace on Monday afternoon, after unpacking my suitcase in my cabin. I still remember that moment vividly, in the present tense.
Walking around the tables in the camp canteen, I see a small box holding a greenish plastic cross. It’s about the width of a table knife and the height of a Popsicle stick, and it is affixed to a rawhide string. I stand at the display table staring at it, keeping myself very still. I can feel my heart beat in my wrists, which dangle at my sides. In the stifling Nebraska summer afternoon, a trickle of sweat runs down my stomach. I cannot believe how beautiful the cross is. A little placard explains that it glows in the dark.
Glancing significantly at the grownup tending the cash register, so he understands that I am not stealing, I remove the cross from its box. I stoop and thrust it into the shadows under the table. It emits a minty light, which is entirely inexplicable, since the necklace doesn’t contain any light bulb or battery. Shining beneath the table, it appears to be cutting into the darkness with its clear edges.
Mist clouds my eyes. I want this cross the way a person wants health. At Temple Baptist Church, where my family belongs, we believe it’s wrong to keep images. Our sanctuary contains pews, facing a plain oak communion table and a podium. We don’t keep religious symbols in our houses, either. So I have never held a crucifix or looked at one carefully. My aching love for this simple fluorescent cross in the palm of my hand is as astonishing as it is powerful and I haven’t the faintest idea at the time that my attraction to it is the first step of a journey that will lead me to a radical separation from my mother. My problem at the moment is that the cross costs two dollars, and two dollars is the entire amount wadded up in the small red plastic coin purse back in my cabin, the amount my father handed me just before I got into Audrey Jones’ car yesterday and drove away from him.
During weeks of dreaming about being at camp, I imagined buying soft drinks and cookies during breaks, wandering nonchalantly through the canteen with my hands in my pockets perusing the items carefully, weighing alternatives. It feels lovely now, the possibility of putting my hand out to touch something, knowing that I could either choose that or move on to something else, knowing that I can touch something entirely different tomorrow and it will be mine too.
I planned not to spend any of the two dollars on the first day. I just looked. What I had left was enough to buy something in the morning and in the afternoon every day for the rest of the week. If I gave the man at the cash register my whole two dollars I would have to stop coming to the canteen, because I couldn’t bear seeing the crafts and candy and soda pop and books and book marks and plaques without being able to buy something.
So I made my feet walk out of the canteen past the cross, into the brilliant sunshine. My feet felt sweaty in my tennis shoes. They didn’t want to leave. Lifting them was as hard for me as lifting the heavy flatiron at my grandmother’s house in Pipestone, Minnesota, the one she set on the wood stove so it would heat up and she could press her dresses.
It’s Wednesday, after lunch. I’ve gotten through two days and we are all hidden away from the consuming heat, resting on our bunks in our cool, dark cabin. We can hear the sighing of the pines outside and a little breeze blows through the screened windows. Our counselor, Nancy, checks the door to make sure no one is eavesdropping, then motions us campers to gather on the bunks around hers. She confides in her hoarse, sensual voice, that the Lord is leading her toward John. John has big shoulders and a beard. He buries the camp garbage and builds the bonfires. Just yesterday I saw John holding hands with Maureen. I am astonished. Does Nancy really think that God wants John to break Maureen’s heart? My parents are intensely loyal to one another and it is just beginning to occur to me that people actually jilt and get jilted.
As a mosquito buzzes in the humid early afternoon air, we sit, hushed. I am stunned by the magnitude of Nancy’s confidence in us, waiting for her to unburden herself further. Nancy fishes in her purse and draws out a new lipstick. She breaks the seal and screws out its tongue. Then she passes it around, permitting us to test it on one another’s lips. I am puzzled because I have been taught that wearing makeup leads to false pride. It seems peculiar to me that a counselor at Bible Camp is pushing lipstick, but I’ve never held a tube of lipstick, and when I get my hands on it I feel a joyful flutter in my stomach. I pass it to the girl on my left. Before we resume Quiet Time, Nancy makes us hold up both hands, palms out, and swear to secrecy. She plans to put a frog in John’s bed tonight. As an afterthought she makes us swear that we will not get into mischief while she is busy with the frog.
The amount of time our camp counselors spent climbing around in the Alps of teenage love damaged their judgment. Maureen soon realized that Nancy’s objective was to gain the attention of Maureen’s boyfriend. Under Maureen’s direction, her girls bolted our cabin door from the outside. When a brown haired girl named Lavinia, who was the only camper quieter than I was, got up in the night to go to the bathroom, she couldn’t open the door. I awoke to bumping and whispers. Lavinia was wiping the floor with her pajama top.
In our morning Bible study the counselors took turns giving testimonies about the Beatitudes, blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor in spirit, but cabin loyalty led to a system of tribal vengeance. Nancy organized us. During the revival service one evening, we propped a plastic pitcher filled with pancake syrup on Maureen’s cabin door so it would fall on whoever opened it first. We threw sheets over our heads at midnight and waited for Maureen’s girls. We hovered in silence among the ghostly trees by the dark, spooky path to the bathroom, not far from a massive stone we believed marked a grave. One of the girls whispered to me that it denoted the place a former camper was buried, a camper, I thought, who might have been caught in the gears of heartbreak and revenge. Trotting down the path to the bathroom, passing that stone, I could feel terror welling in my chest like a sparkly fountain, creating a romantic thrill that I now realize I must have nurtured, sometimes taking that path just so I could feel it again.
Other pranks shocked me because they hovered outside the world I understood as civilized, which at that time meant the world of my family and our school. One afternoon a counselor named Nate swam underwater, seizing and biting the leg of one of the fat, unpopular boys. The boy, who thought he had been attacked by a shark, shrieked, and bounded out of the water. He balled up his fists and screamed for a long time. Everyone laughed. It was supposed to be funny, so I laughed, but he never went swimming again. Watching him sweat on the shore as we swam one day, I felt so sad for him that I didn’t get into the water myself.
Then some kids ran one camper’s pajamas up the flagpole so he had to sleep naked. They stole and hid the silverware from the dining hall. In our cabin, Nancy paged through Seventeen magazine while we raced around and threw Rice Krispies at one another. She painted our toenails the red of brake-lights. She advised us about which boys she thought were cute and hinted at the sultry mysteries of sex. I was so inexperienced that much of the time I was reduced to the status of a silent observer who was learning the jokes and gambits of an alien tribe. Meanwhile, the camp director sat in his shirtsleeves in the office, fanning himself and talking on the black telephone.
I was probably the smallest child at camp, and I had no inkling of the awakening that would befall me in a year or two. For me the curtain hadn’t opened on the opera of adolescence. I didn’t even know there was an opera. Not that I wasn’t passionate. That summer I lustily sang four part harmony: I’ve got a home in glory land that outshines the sun. I’ve got a home in glory land that outshines the sun. Do Lord, oh do Lord, oh do remember me, way beyond the blue. They were the songs of my mother’s fundamentalist people, earthy and rowdy and I loved them.
Then there were the lyrics that actually were love songs, though I didn’t yet comprehend that. I come to the garden alone, when the dew is still on the roses and the voice I hear singing in my ear no other sound discloses. And I walk with him and I talk with him and I tell him I am his own. And the joy we share as we linger there, none other has ever known. I warbled the words with a reverent urgency that I didn’t comprehend as sexuality.
And chow. I adored chow: fried chicken and mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, tapioca pudding, creamed cauliflower, all of it overcooked. And cookies galore. No one was making me eat carrots or liver. We campers stood on the grass in a snaky line, breathing in the earthy aroma of baking bread, singing Here we sit like birds in the wilderness, birds in the wilderness, waiting to be fed, until the cooks opened the wide doors and we could heap our plates with white, starchy, abundant food unlike what my mother made at home.
At night we huddled in a circle, mesmerized as the bonfire licked the sky with its yellow and red tongues. I felt like a Neanderthal child: close, folded into her tribe, safe against the enormous, feeling dark. But during the day I walked around camp on the edge of tears, overwhelmed by the terrible facts I was discovering about the world. Naïve as I was, I could feel the undercurrent of pulsing adolescent sexuality. What did it mean? I knew enough to be aware I was missing something, but what? And then there was the fierce competition between cabins. I began to wonder whether everything my mother had taught us at home as normal human behavior was actually deviant.
What brought on full blown homesickness in me was a tactless remark from some older girl, a sarcasm, some condescension that made me suddenly aware of how young I was, how terribly out of place. The girl might have been Maureen, who by then had surrendered John to our counselor, Nancy. I don’t remember.
It’s mid-week and I am brushing my teeth in the rough-timbered, stinky bathroom. The windows have been propped open and sparky bright morning air flows above the row of sinks. Someone—say it’s Maureen–is standing beside me at the next sink. She is a willowy high school girl with some power to say what happens at camp. Her long, brown hair curls tastefully on her shoulders. I feel a presence, and I look up at her, seeing that she is watching me, appraising me. The glistening, hard black of her pupils in the middle of her blue eyes makes my heart hammer in my chest. I work to breathe. I feel like a flailing fish in a boat. I try not to betray my alarm.
“Hi,” I say through a mouthful of Colgate. I have learned that much. You have to greet people in the morning, even if you don’t feel like it. Even if you never greet members of your own family at home.
She tosses her hair back. “Are you old enough for this camp?” she asks.
“What do you mean?”
“I bet you’re not eleven!”
“Honey, Jesus wants you for a sunbeam.”
I’m not sure what she means by this, so I am unable to contribute a reply to the conversation she has honored me by starting. In our church they sing Jesus Wants You For A Sunbeam at the children’s service. The last time I sang it, I was about six. It slowly dawns on me that Maureen must be telling me I am too young to be here. I realize that she’s probably been watching me observe and then follow what the older kids do. I wonder whether I appear even more bizarre than I feel. I hear the water gushing from the faucet. Outside there is the sound of tremendous flapping, as if wet sheets are blowing in a gale. I see through the window a mob of startled crows taking to sky.
Maureen is standing with her orange toothbrush in her mouth, staring at me, waiting for me to reply. I try to think of something, but my mind is blank and smooth as a bald gray highway going nowhere. I’m breathing fast. I turn and begin brushing my teeth again. She shuts the water off with a flourish and walks out. That seems to put a period at the end of the long sentence of my weeklong childish incompetence. Suddenly, after my conversation with Maureen, I long to go home. I begin feeling what I later learn the word for. I feel homesick.
When I am done brushing my teeth, I walk to the canteen. I saunter around the tables, pretending to be interested in the pastel candy with Bible verses printed on it or the fluorescent bumper stickers announcing that GOD IS LOVE. But the cross reels me in a slow circle around it. Finally I reach the table and pick it up. I feel calmer. I hold it in a shadow and it gives off lovely greening light.
Homesickness is a disease that rivets its victim’s imagination on home so powerfully that nothing else seems real. I, who had read The Boxcar Children and dreamed the pleasures of being an orphan, began suffering from an imagination entirely filled up with my mother. I pictured her stepping into her car the Monday I left for camp. I heard her voice calling my name over and over. I smelled her Tweed perfume and felt her hand lightly on the back of my neck. The very woodsy air I breathed stifled me. I couldn’t eat. I cried. I vomited. My head pulsated. I feared talking to anyone, in case I might dissolve in tears. I was infected with self-consciousness. I watched myself like a homesick child in a movie who loses weight, dwindles, and slowly dissolves into the landscape. The next day, I stayed in my cabin during Hymn Sing and Bible Study. Pastor Ray didn’t notice. Even Nancy didn’t notice.
Dutifully I went to craft time, where I lolled in front of bins of Popsicle sticks and clay and yarn strips and paper and sequins and glue and paints. I could not think of a single reason to pick up any of it. I needed to lie down. I wanted to sleep. The counselor in charge cheerfully tried to convince me to braid a lanyard, which he said I could use as a key chain. He suggested different colors, the bright gold, the royal blue, the forest green. The thing is, I didn’t own any keys.
“Then give it to your mother,” he suggested. I wanted to see my mother so desperately that the very word mother made me bolt from the tent.
My mother’s friend, Audrey Jones, who had brought me to camp, drove up on Friday to volunteer. She must have noticed that something was wrong with me. She lured me out of my cabin by inviting me to the canteen. She bought me a coke, and asked me whether I was all right. She meant well. But all I could see was how different she was from my cozy, black-haired mother. She was athletic and plain-spoken, with a square jaw. She had a habit of wearing anklets with heels. As I sat at the table across from her, I couldn’t talk, I was so homesick. I knew I was being monstrously ungrateful. Her only crime was not being my mother. But I was unable to stop the mawkish longing that this woman could not satisfy. We listened to the rain beating on the canteen’s metal siding. We sat together in awkward silence, a generous, concerned adult and the broken child she was trying to help.
The week at camp turned so ghastly partly because there wasn’t much adult supervision and our counselors were unprepared to manage a bunch of children. And maybe my mother should have foreseen that. But I need to explain. She coyly lured me into signing up for this camp because I’d spent the previous August roving our neighborhood with a juvenile delinquent named Junior.
I took Junior with me one afternoon when my mother sent me to the supermarket down the block from our house to buy a bottle of catsup. I had only been in the store a couple of times and as we strolled through the aisles I beheld a fantasy world I could barely believe. We had just moved to Lincoln from Parkers Prairie, where my father’s General Store with its 8 aisles was the whole world of commerce. But in this bright daydream of a supermarket I gazed at cartons of chocolate and pistachio and strawberry ice cream. There were a dozen different kinds and colors of pasta. There were cheeses of all shapes and colors and sizes. I beheld Hershey bars and Mars bars and Heath bars and pink bubble gum with funnies and strings of licorice and chocolate frosting mix that our family could never hope to buy. Pushing a cart, Junior and I started out with good intentions, but soon we were merely pretending to shop, stuffing licorice and Mary Janes and Hershey bars into our pockets. Along the way, we dropped a bottle of catsup into the cart and stood in the check-out line and paid for it so we would appear legitimate and no one would suspect us. We brought the catsup home to my mother and then made for our hide-out in Junior’s garage where we knocked back candy until my mother called me for dinner.
Some afternoons Junior and I lurked around houses in the neighborhood, sneaking onto porches and snitching whatever we fancied. We invoked the “finders keepers” rule. We figured that if people left toys and sprinklers out, our minor thievery might keep them from falling prey to even greater thievery. One afternoon we pillaged cookie samples from the garage of a Keebler salesman and ate them till we lay like fat ticks on his front lawn. Afterwards, I felt vaguely guilty. That evening when I saw a man heading for our front porch, I felt alarm. His lunging walk and balled-up fists tipped me off. I shouldn’t have taken the cookies.
He rang our doorbell. My mother answered the door. He told her that her daughter had stolen and eaten the samples he needed to make a living. He shouted loudly enough to attract attention from our neighbor, who stopped coiling his garden hose and watched. The cookie salesman cursed and stomped his foot.
My mother slipped into her self-assured nurse persona. “Oh, no, I don’t think my daughter would do that,” she informed him.
He raised his voice. He used words that were forbidden in our family. My mother flipped the screen door lock to keep him outside and summoned me. “This man says you went into his garage and took his cookies.” I could feel her eyes evaluating me. “You wouldn’t do that, would you?”
I swallowed back terror. “No,” I told her.
But my mother was not a fool. Bible camp was her way of separating me from Junior. Maybe she thought at Bible camp I’d experience a programmatic change of heart. As it turns out, that week did set me on different path, but not one she would have chosen; she was a committed Baptist and religious images gave her the heebie jeebies.
On Friday afternoon, I made a final journey to the canteen to look at the cross. I’d taken that walk many times, even though I had decided early in the week that I couldn’t afford it. Walking into the canteen tent, I saw they were having a sale. The price of the cross had been slashed to a dollar thirty. Noticing that I was eying it again, the man at the counter asked me how much money I had. I showed him my dollar ten. He took my money, slipped the cross in a bag, and handed it to me.
For the first time during the entire week, I felt joy. I crawled under the display table, where the cross illuminated the dark. By its light I could see under the covers of my bunk. And that night it lit up the path when I traveled alone to the bathroom. Its Halloweeny radiance appeared transcendent to me, as it apparently did not to other campers. There were almost as many necklaces remaining on the commissary table at the end of camp as there had been at the beginning.
I don’t remember what happened to that cross. During one of my many moves I must have given it away, probably because it bespoke a childhood I wanted to shed. But it signaled a beginning, too, the first time I’d felt drawn to an image. It was finally images and metaphors with their multivalent power that I followed out of my mother’s fundamentalism. Now, as I sit here writing, I wish I could take the cross out again and look at it. It was kitschy, I admit. But I would make it stand for something, maybe for the fact that our most crucial decisions are small ones that start as secrets inside us and find their way out. I’d let it stand for that mystery at the center of each of us and for the unpredictable, funny grace that can befall us–because it was grace, surely, that made me see the beauty of that cross. I’d let the cross mark the first time I remember feeling the bitter-sweet longing we call homesickness and the first time I aligned myself against my mother’s literal way of seeing the world.
On the bumpy ride back home with Audrey Jones, I looked forward to seeing my mother the way I looked forward to Christmas. I wore the cross, holding it steady in a chute of sunlight that streamed into the car window. I could almost hear the thing gathering whatever light it could into itself. I wanted to show Mother how much light it gave off.
When I got home, I did, I showed her. “That’s nice,” she said and opened the oven to check whether the squash was done.
She had not been homesick for me, of course, and she had no way of knowing that I had been homesick for her, because I didn’t know how to tell her. And how could she know that I had been set on a path to collide with her most deeply felt and believed faith? I didn’t know it yet myself. Like much of what’s important, that remained secret. Mother made a cake and the whole family celebrated my return. But that night, in my own bed, I watched the cross slowly pay out radiance into the darkness. As the day around it failed and night came, it grew steadily more articulate, its edges sharpening against the dark. It seemed like a star that had fallen to earth, something a person could navigate by.