When I turned 80, my son Charles then 56, invited me backpacking. I jumped at the chance to spend time with him hiking through the woods. What could be better? We haven’t always been on good terms, in fact, I’d say we’ve had a rough time of it over the years, starting when he was just a baby. I was 23 when he was born and his brother was 2. We were all thrilled to welcome him and expected another mild-tempered son like his brother. Well, Charles was an alert little guy who slept far less than he yelled. We had an old-fashioned rocking cradle we placed in the living room where I spent many a night pushing it groggily back and forth, not wanting to wake his brother or med-student dad. And he needed casts on both legs after the first week to correct a turned in ankle. When I’d lift him from the cradle, the casts would clunk loudly and he would cry with gusto.
He was so cute, however, that when photos were taken at a few months, we kept all the proofs and framed them. I have them hanging in my office to this day. His brother loved/hated him, kissing and bopping him on the head. When the casts came off, he needed shoes, two left shoes instead of a pair. Luckily there was a shop in Philly that catered to parents with just such a need. From kindergarten on, I met with teachers who either adored him or found him impossible—there seemed to be an equal number of each. In 7th grade, one young woman had had her fill and she shoved a piece of paper under my nose. During typing class, Charles had typed Mrs. Gordon has big boobs 20 times. I laughed out loud, but she didn’t. Once he had his driver’s license, several cars were totaled, mine among them complete with a batch of student papers that couldn’t be extracted from the accordioned mess. “I was just parked for a minute on Pacific Coast highway and this guy in a Cadillac was drunk and . . . “ I thanked god that he survived. The divorce and my coming out as a lesbian did nothing to help our relationship, ragged as it was. It took years of his being on his own, carving out a successful business for himself, for us to reach some kind of respect for each other. I always adored him and I think he always loved me, but oh it was hard. He would call now and then and when I would pick up, he would say “Joan Robins?” in a loud voice. I can’t remember him calling me mom during those long years. But now at last we had reached some kind peace. We both loved hiking, nature, gadgets, adventure. So here we were, about to go backpacking. I was thrilled.
I borrowed a light-weight pack and gear from a friend, followed Charles’ detailed instructions for what to pack and how, and was finally ready. My only worry, my 3 year old grandnephew Caden had managed to sneeze directly in my face while I was tying his shoe. We got to Lassen Park and prepared to leave—Charles’ pack was twice as heavy as mine; he carried all the food. I carried my camera.
We started out at Butte Lake and I wondered if I could really do it. The ground was sandy and cindery, not easy walking. But somehow, with his encouragement, I made it to our first camp site. Within minutes he had his tent up and mine as well.
And then he went about the business of purifying water
and getting ready to cook a meal. I wandered around with my camera and he literally did all the work. Not bad! I loved watching him lose himself zen-like in the many tasks and stored away this new view of my son. We were easy with each other, chatting away or not talking at all. The meal was good, I was exhausted and fell into my tent gratefully. In the middle of the night I awoke shivering. My friend’s sleeping bag was not sufficient for the 39 degree night. I put on all my clothes and tried to doze. I started sneezing. By sunrise I had a full-fledged cold. Once packed and ready to hike, I felt a little better and we made it to Snag Lake but all the camp sites seemed taken. On we trudged. Finally we found a spot and again, Charles at work, Mom at rest, dinner delicious (stroganoff in a bag). Charles traded sleeping bags with me and I was fine. I couldn’t breathe, my nose completely stuffed, but I must have slept. We were on the home stretch the next day. Charles wanted to climb Cinder Cone and off we went. He wound up far ahead of me often, and waited patiently for me to catch up.
When we reached Cinder Cone, I sent him off with a sigh of relief, and sat under a tree, watching both our packs and watching for wildlife.
We made it to our car and I was jubilant! Looking back, it was a superb trip, the cold included.
A few days after we got home, Charles called. He had a terrible cold, but we were both still thrilled about our trip.