There are two cabins, side-by-side, handicapped accessible and right next to the restroom building, constructed to replace smelly old outhouses that once had to be shared with strangers in the daylight and the dark, carrying your toilet paper for all the world to see.
This weekend the two cabins are inhabited by several young mothers and daughters, perhaps a Girl Scout camping trip to earn badges. The women are all trim and wear make-up; their clothing is fashionable and color coordinated. The girls are well-behaved.
Their outdoor picnic table has a flowered plastic tablecloth that catches my fancy and weaves its way into this story, as I recall bringing a long white plastic fake lace tablecloth here for many years, wondering now whatever was I thinking? The matriarch holding onto a small bit of feminine civility among the males of all ages whom I love fiercely, who each help me keep going without their knowledge?
The cabin below us downhill, has more lanterns, chairs, coolers, and dubious cars, large flannel-shirted men whom I imagine meet here to drink beer, eat pizza, then disappear all day, probably to hunt and trap somewhere else since this land is posted and protected by NO HUNTING AND TRAPPING signs.
The far cabin, huddled and nestled into the mountainside is dimly lit at night with scant candles placed at pleasing distances inside, flirting and winking across the woods like small mischievous beacons in contrast to the roaring outdoor bonfire, constantly fed by a lone young man dressed in grey and black, who moves with the sureness and elegance of a samurai dancer, a helpful Good Samaritan, a lone monk meditating in the woods.
Except when he chops wood, then the very air surrounding him sizzles and shouts with an age old chant of stormy seas and phases of the moon and men and women, of dark and light, a single leaf holding all the answers, or a bird swooping low for a dinner kill. It is a warrior song of hunger, of soup and satisfaction. His blows are deliberate, splitting wood as if engaged in some unseen battle or quest for life. Chop the wood. Make the fire. Cook a simple meal. I cannot tell if he is content in his solitude or if each movement and act is a secret signal, an invitation for someone to join him, someone who understands the complex simplicity of his mind.
Two cabins are empty. The one we are in faces another cabin that usually holds my daughter and her tumble of three young sons. The cabin that one year while her husband was in Iraq, our close connection was both haven and hell. Perhaps four months into his deployment, we all were still adjusting. The keeping of traditions proved to be the hardest; her eldest turned ten at the seashore on vacation and refused to eat birthday cake or skype with his father, at one point hiding under pillows and blankets in a back room silently sobbing that some small incident wasn't fair.
I comforted him as sometimes only grandmothers can, stroking his hair and telling him stories of my childhood when I felt life wasn't fair. We were both thinking about our fathers but talking about other things. After a short while, I said, " If you want to be sad a little longer by yourself, I'll leave... or we can go to the beach." He thanked me as I closed the door, only for it to be opened a moment later, his face clear, a brave small smile, "Let's go to the beach!"
But here, camping that year, all three boys wanted Grandpa to see what they made from sticks with penknives, Grandma to look at drawings and read their simple misspelled stories filling pages of emptiness. My daughter was half-proving to herself she could get through the year, half-relying on all of us to lift her spirits when doubts crept in. Here, in familiar terrain, established customs, we had to tread carefully as if we too were navigating Iraq, but from private distances.
Rock Wars was created, an outdoor game where rocks are chosen and named, crayoned or chalked with whatever clever or silly appellation assigned: Acorn, Clean Cut, Goner, Zombie, Fracture, Shakazulu, Big Mama, Zendak VQFRXCUZ, and for me, Rocky and Kid Rock. The competition began, simple rules, two people and two rocks battled it out, whichever rock split, lost and was mourned and the victor praised, moving on to the next round. My daughter has literally hours of film footage of this.
My sons took it upon themselves to teach the nephews proper sawing and splitting firewood techniques, as my daughter and I gathered kindling talking mother-to-mother, woman-to-woman. In this simple act, the primal gathering of wood to provide warmth and later light when the darkness would inevitably come, she relaxed visibly, even laughed.
She wanted to have a ceremony with worn, frayed flags where we burned them. So over a quick snack, she explained the proper flag burning rules and said a few awkward prayers, not just for their Dad, but for his brother serving in Afghanistan, and all soldiers; the youngest stopping us with the remark, "enough praying, let's burn the flags!" She lit the match and the flags ignited, disappearing in a brief white-blue-light leaving nothing, not even ashes. We were all stunned, as if it was a miracle when what occurred could be explained by the nylon of the flags. In fact, the explanation of that plus "the bad kind of flag burning as in protest" took longer than the actual burning. The boys, relieved we had done it the good way, went off in search of magical things each believe in that exist only here, in this forest, in this family.