NOW and THEN

I’m on the road again – finally! – this time in a campground near Payson, Arizona. I’ve decided to get to know the state I live in, although it’s hard to ignore the siren songs of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.

My first morning I woke early and felt a rush of joy as the light announced the rising of the sun outside all my windows. I made a pot of tea and read for a while. But I kept looking up and out the windows, contemplating my return to the vagabond life, glorying in its simplicity, relaxed and focussed as I rarely am at home, unhooked from all the ties that bind, feeling oh so free!

There was only one other campsite within view, right across the road in the woods. I could see that during the night two vans had pulled in there and two tents had been set up. I had slept so deeply that I hadn’t heard a thing.

A few hours later, after a long walk and breakfast, I drove off to explore Payson. There was still no sign of life from those neighbors across the way, but when I returned in the early afternoon they were sitting around the picnic table having their lunch. I couldn’t believe my eyes: they were two women and four children, and oh my! those children!

One boy, about ten years old, was rhythmically touching his forehead down to the table top. The woman sitting next to him pushed a sandwich into his mouth whenever she could.

A little girl sat on the woman’s other side, giving rapt attention to a piece of cloth she was holding in one hand. I could hear her saying over and over again “si la…si la…si la….” between bites of the sandwich she held in her other hand.

The second woman sat between two girls. She held one securely within her right arm as the girl jerked and stiffened and pounded the table, over and over. The woman held a sandwich to her mouth whenever possible.

The girl on her left was enormous, both tall and obese, probably in her teens. She sat looking down at the sandwich in her hand and every now and then twitched hard, looked up at the sky, and let out a shriek. Then she rolled forward and took a bite.

The two women smiled often and even carried on a cheerful-sounding conversation.

I had not seen a group of children like that since my childhood. From the age of three until adolescence, “home” for me was a farm near Millbrook, N.Y., run by my angry aunt as a school for retarded children (that’s what they were called back then). There were six of them plus my cruel aunt plus little me. We were isolated, miles from the nearest farm, and for years I knew no other children. Mealtimes looked much like what I was seeing over there in the woods.

I was mesmerized, watching them. How extraordinary to find this echo of my strange early life right here, of all places. What are the chances that they would be in this campground the very day that I was, and that they would settle in right across from me? I sat under a tree with my book and my own sandwich, pretending to read.

I imagined my little-girl-self sitting over there with them at that table. I was overwhelmed by memories, they came faster than I could attend to them. I felt again what it was like, living in that household, though since I knew no other it didn’t seem remarkable to me at the time. None of the children paid attention to me or to each other, everyone lived in their own mysterious worlds, there was no interaction, no connection. My aunt resented me and fortunately had no time for me. I was alone, but free in ways that few children are. It was a compelling beginning for a little girl who would grow up to be a psychologist.

When they had all disappeared into the tents and the vans for naps – goodness those two women worked hard – I drove off to explore the small town of Pine nearby and the even smaller town of Strawberry. It was a relief to fully inhabit the present tense again.

Talking to people in Pine – the three volunteer librarians, the head of the senior center, the art gallery owner, the chef at one of the restaurants – I realized that it was a lot like my little town of Oracle, especially the fact that much of the population is retired people. In the gallery I asked how many artists were local. “Forty-seven of them live right here,” answered Myra, the owner, “and there are lots more that don’t show yet.” More than 47 artists in a population of 2000! “And what do the other people do?” “Hmmm, I guess mostly hunt and fish. But not my husband, he’s a crazy scientist, everyone calls him Pine-stein.”

Strawberry, over the top of the mountain from Pine, named for the fields of wild strawberries the early settlers found there, consists of three restaurants, a motel, a gas station, a pottery shop, and a huge brand-new general store. That’s it, just those seven places of business on the side of the road, no other buildings. Talking to the owner of the general store I learned that the one thousand citizens of Strawberry, almost all retirees, all live down in the gulch below, their houses hidden beneath tall pines. He opened the store because he got bored doing what everyone retires to Strawberry for: to hunt and to fish. He doesn’t care if the store is successful, it’s enough that it gives him something to do. I was the only person in the store, my car was the only one that had driven down the main road.

While I was talking to him a huge Airsteam trailer pulled in, long as a suburban house. Out jumped two teenaged brothers. We got talking about trailers, exchanged tips about backing up and hitching on, and then they invited me in to see every detail of their forty year old beauty. They were so full of excitement, just starting out on a long road trip, that when I said goodbye they insisted I come back that evening and drink beer with them. I think they were missing their grandmother.

I treated myself to supper in Pine on the way back, so I didn’t get to the campground until it was dark and everyone was tucked up for the night. I soon was too. Just before falling asleep, I thought about how long my life has been, how full, how complex, how much I’ve learned, how much I’ve changed. And yet that little Lizzie that I imagined sitting at the lunch table with my campground neighbors was already so much the person I am today. I fell asleep, strangely comforted.

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