After all the time I spent there, I still can’t pinpoint it on a map. The cabin— Camp, as my friend Susie called it, seemed to exist in a timeless place where visible and invisible worlds meet. I hold the crumpled paper covered in Mr. C’s faded handwriting which notes the landmarks along the way: a country church, an iron bridge, a gravel road, and a rusty gate. He wrote it all down for me over thirty years ago so that I could always find my way back.
Camp stayed empty except for occasional weekends when Susie’s family fled our town of rooted generations to disappear into the backwoods of Virginia. I remember tracing my fingers along the grooves left by tongues on the salt lick— a block of hardened minerals left on a post as an offering to pregnant does, nursing fawns, and antler-sprouting bucks. This is where I became a wild child hunting the earth for salamanders, mushrooms, and buried treasures like shards of window glass and bits of pottery— last traces of a nearby hotel and spa washed away in the flood of 1949. The owners had coaxed southerners to “come try the healing waters.” I drank that icy water from a thin mossy pipe jutting straight out of the steep mountain behind the cabin; it made my insides feel tingly and bright green like the ferns.
Susie’s father— Mr. C., to me— sometimes took us into the woods surrounding Camp to gather chestnuts still in their prickly husks. They rained down like baby sleeping porcupines released from the trees as he shook the trunks with his bare hands. Those same hands hung a circular wooden swing from a rope tied to a branch of a giant oak. Susie and I took turns running with the tail of that rope, letting go to send each other shrieking and flying. I pumped my legs to touch my toes to the silent clouds.
Mr. C. was usually nearby— chopping wood, or repairing a porch screen ripped open by a bear, or clearing fallen branches from a path. In my little girl mind, he existed simply to fix and to take care of things. He owned a shop on the edge of town where he sold and repaired all-terrain vehicles and farm tractors. He walked through the world differently than other men I knew in my parents’ social circle. He had a habit of lifting his feet slowly, as if out for a casual stroll through a shallow swamp. His voice was steady and soft-spoken, rather than jocular and entertaining. He had gold-flecked, thinning brown hair and a fluid, unimposing body that was neither too large nor too small. He didn’t smoke, and he hardly drank. I never heard him swear or tell uncomfortable jokes. He exuded decency and reliability— like an underrated superhero disguised as a boy scout.
Once Mr. C. built his horse-obsessed daughter a miniature stable painted white and green for all her toy steeds. I had never seen a father express such unmistakable love. My own father’s love had become hard to grasp, trapped behind a fortress wall of alcoholism and depression. Tarnished trophies and yellowed newspaper clippings were evidence that he had once been a shining star with stunning athletic talent and an almost mystical connection to dogs. In the days before leash laws, his border collie Traveler charged onto the high school football field in search of him during games. Later there was Kimp, a Lassie-look-alike with only three legs who regularly hobbled miles across town to find him at his law office. Local shopkeepers sometimes hailed a taxi to give Kimp a ride home.
As life proceeded, my father’s sensitive nature was mauled by loss. One of his law partners— an older father figure he adored and made godfather to my younger brother— hung himself with a belt. Although my mother said he could never bear to speak to her about the details, she suspects he was the first person to arrive at the scene, after his partner’s wife frantically called. A second friend and law partner died of leukemia, leaving behind two young daughters. A third friend was killed in a tragic accident on a hunting trip with his fourteen-year-old son. Over the years of my early childhood, my father’s green eyes reddened and increasingly avoided mine. Attachment, for him, had become dangerous. Mr. C.’s blue eyes, however, remained clear and soft behind the sparkly glint of wire-framed glasses.
Camp, however, was not all paradise. Susie’s grandmother, “Nanny” Kunkle, cooked us breakfast each morning on the black cast-iron stove. Susie was blissfully unaware of how “pon haus” was made until I, like Eve, couldn’t resist the Tree of Knowledge. Something was suspicious about those thick slabs of yellow-white cornmeal fried in lard. When I inquired about the mysteriously dark and chewy bits, Nanny delivered the disgusting answer: “pig innards.” I imagined her chopping up stringy intestines with a butcher knife. Susie blanched as I painfully swallowed, while wispy-haired Granddaddy scolded: “Katy, stop eatin’ like a bird!”
Susie and I rose well before dawn at Camp to play on the narrow slice of floor in our tiny, chilly bedroom. We built “homes” out of blocks for horses and Barbies, and giggled nervously at the mouse poop we discovered in the stained, worn carpet. Nanny floated hollow-eyed in her nightgown from her bedroom to our doorway: “Girls. . . y’all know the time? Git back in that bed!“ We obeyed, and tucked our covers up off the floor to keep rodents from shimmying up. We’d drift back to sleep and then wake to a stoked fire crackling in the den, throwing open the gates to a new day of adventure.
Nanny and Granddaddy warned we could be mistaken for deer in the dense foliage, so we stayed off the mountain behind the cabin during hunting season and played in the sparkling creek. They reminded us to scare off bears with noise; not a problem with our incessant chatter and laughter. They instructed Susie to sprint in a zigzag pattern if a poisonous snake came after her in hot pursuit. Zigzag, supposedly, possessed the power to mesmerize and thwart any ill-intentioned reptile.
Absorbed one morning catching crayfish, our heads snapped when a gunshot splintered the still air. We spied Granddaddy through the trees about fifty feet away in his red and black plaid trapper hat, pointing a smoking rifle at the dirt. Susie dutifully rose to meet the moment she had trained for, bounding into the forest like a zigzagging doe. I panted in her wake, trying to keep up, careening side-to-side.
Granddaddy chopped the rattle off the snake’s tail and threw the limp carcass and blown-off head onto the woodpile. Nanny Kunkle, like a mountain prophet in a droopy cotton housedress, uttered: “Stay away from thar. . . Snakes don’t die til the sun goes down.” I paled, visualizing the snapping jaws re-attaching to the otherworldly serpent body. The hairs on the back of my neck settled when twilight finally came. We headed back to town the next morning. The rattle came with us, peeking up over the top of Grandaddy’s flannel breast pocket like a primeval war medal.
One Friday spring evening around dusk, Susie and I rode out to Camp with Mr. C. in his International Harvester Scout. We relaxed in the backseat with a bag of barbeque Fritos and two bottles of Mountain Dew, happy to be done for the week with school and the pubescent social minefield of fifth grade. Liza Sue, the nervous family beagle, curled into Susie’s lap as paved road transitioned into bumpy gravel.
Mr. C. veered onto the narrow muddy track descending into the darkening woods. We slowly rolled past the “No Trespassing” signs, branches scratching at the sides of the truck like tiny possum fingernails. The engine began to choke and sputter. Liza Sue tucked her tail and whined as the Scout gave a final gasp, and then shuddered to a stop. From the back seat, I watched Mr. C.’s slowly tensing shoulders. My heart pounded, recognizing a situation where my own father might self-combust. Mr. C. didn’t say a word as he repeatedly turned the key, failing to revive the comatose engine. Reality sharpened into focus: we were going nowhere. I peered out the black window, praying there were no snakes, or bears, or creepy hunters. I increased my Frito munching, tearing up a little. Mr. C. exhaled in defeat and coaxed us out of the dead Scout: “C’mon, girls. . . we’re walkin.” Susie clutched trembling Liza Sue to her chest.
As Mr. C. escorted us through the forest, my breath quickened and vision narrowed. His t-shirt and canvas shorts slowly disappeared up ahead, until all I could see of him were his short white socks. They glowed brilliantly, as if filled with moonlight. Twigs snapped and shadows loomed, but the socks beckoned all the way to Camp as Mr.C. ambled on. His sure-footed calm wrapped around my hunched shoulders like a quilt. I would follow him anywhere. When we arrived at Camp, Susie finally put down Liza Sue, who peed all over the toasty cabin floor in relief.
Throughout my teenage years as my own father became increasingly fragile and unpredictable, Mr. C. was there. When Susie and I left home for college, the day started with a harrowing ride through stubborn fog squatting along the mountain between our town and the University of Virginia. Susie rode with her parents in a pick-up truck overloaded with both of our boxes, while I followed behind with my parents in our white-and-maroon Chevy sedan. Just before the scenic overlook high above the pastoral farms of Rockfish Gap, my box of 1980’s preppy sweaters took flight off the back of the truck. Our caravan screeched to a halt. Mrs. C. hopped out and alarmingly picked her way back and forth across the highway to rescue my far-flung knits.
Finally arriving at our dorm, Susie and I shoved our twin beds into an L-shape with the stereo and record albums wedged in between. We had debated this design decision for months, concluding it was the most inviting set-up for our favorite pastime: lying on the floor, dreamily sedating ourselves with the music of James Taylor and Fleetwood Mac.
After hoisting the last of our stuff up the dorm stairs, my father irritably tossed empty boxes off the balcony onto the bewildered freshmen arriving on the lawn below. He was jonesing for a cigarette and a drink. Mrs. C. whipped a can of Lysol from her purse to disinfect the bathroom. She and my mother then hugged us goodbye and retreated to the parking lot, where they gaped at the shaking, rat-infested bushes outside the dining hall.
As Susie and I arranged knick-knacks and hung posters, Mr. C. lingered in the doorway looking for something to do. He launched into a critique of our carefully considered set-up, insisting on the superior space efficiency of parallel beds. As he offered to move them just so, Susie and I exchanged eye rolls and shut him down with a dismissive thanks-but-no-thanks. It occurred to us later that he was trying to manage not us, but his own breaking heart. His help was no longer desired or needed. He would have to bear the grief of his only child leaving home.
Over the course of our freshman year, Susie and I dreamed up our next adventure: a summer living at the beach along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We drove to Nags Head over spring break and secured waitressing jobs at Starkey’s Pizza (where Susie later got fired after a mere five days, but that’s a story for another time.) We put a deposit down on a tiny room with bunk beds at the Silver Winds Lodge, a breezy-sounding bare bones dormitory for seasonal employees.
Our single mode of transportation for the summer would be Susie’s chocolate brown Volkswagen Rabbit, which I named Frida. Frida presented something foreign to me: a stick shift. We intended to share the driving, so Mr. C. offered me lessons. On a warm spring evening just before sunset, we met in the vast, empty parking lot of John Lewis Junior High School. Susie stifled a giggle in the back seat as I took my place behind the wheel. Mr. C. began to gracefully conduct from the passenger seat, gesturing precisely with his calloused hands to help me envision the synchronized symphony yet to be performed between clutch and gears in the dark bowels of Frida. Mouth parched and eyes glazed, I tried to coordinate my foot and hand movements as he directed. Despite the grating gears and Susie’s disturbing backseat commentary on the possibility of whiplash, Mr. C. remained stoic as Frida groaned and lurched violently around the parking lot. I glanced at him sideways, and he glanced back— the corners of his mouth unfreezing and lifting a little. His soft eyes met mine and silently said, “It’s ok. . . you’ll get this.” He seemed to appreciate my floundering efforts, even as I was poised to destroy his car’s transmission. I calmed down, and so did Frida.
I had named the car “Frida” after my father’s secretary. She sat behind a typewriter in a cloud of cigarette smoke which wafted about the reception area in his law office. I had no indication that she was either close to or comfortable with my father, but because her desk was next to his office door, the sight of her reminded me of how I used to sit next to him on the couch when I was little. There I would inhale the musky, nutmeg fragrance of Old Spice aftershave and comb his jet black hair, always neat and manly thanks to Vitalis hair tonic which he rubbed into his scalp each morning.
I felt loved by my father then. He used to tell me stories about “the wizard”— a mysterious, invisible character who lived beneath the couch cushions. The hand of the wizard would pass me a stick of Juicy Fruit gum if I dared to reach into the dark crevice between the arm of the couch and the pillow supporting my father’s perpetual sideways lounge. This was before a suffocating sadness wove a shroud around his sweet magic. My mother tried to enlist the help of the family doctor, a friend of my grandparents. In a town at a time where appearances were protected above all else, the doctor shrugged off her worry with, “All the Wrays drink.” I wrapped my arms around my father’s neck to kiss his heavy face before I went to bed each night. I stopped when I was ten, frightened and ashamed that my love was never enough to help.
The need to try stayed with me, however. After I graduated from college, I bought my own Volkswagen Rabbit— with a stick shift!— and drove across the country to San Francisco. Susie ame out the following summer to visit, and we cried in a redwood campground as we absorbed the unthinkable: that we would probably never live in the same place again.
I enrolled in graduate school to become a therapist, and chose a chemical dependency hospital as my first training site. When my father’s alcoholism progressed to the point where his face was black and blue from falls, I flew home and organized a family intervention. I feared he would kill himself in response, but he surprised me. He fought like a cornered wildcat, and then angrily resigned himself to treatment for one week only so that he could get out in time to watch a football game. For the last seven years of his life, he remained sober. His edges softened. He never expressed relief, nor remorse. Whenever I tried to talk with him about what had happened, the conversation became strained and brittle. Vulnerability was still shameful, and therefore unspeakable. I wondered if he forgave me.
In 1995 I returned to the University of Virginia, this time to the hospital— where my father lay unconscious on life support at the age of sixty-two. Although surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm had rendered him well enough to walk me down the aisle at my wedding six months before, postoperative infections had continually haunted, and his scarred liver and weakened heart could not sustain the fight.
As I sat alone with him to say goodbye, I played tapes of what I thought would be soothing music. But, then I had the impulse to pick up a book which he had once given to me as a gift. I had never read it, rejecting both it and him as full of crass, offensive humor. As I began to read it aloud, my father shockingly responded by regaining consciousness for several minutes. I asked him to blink if he could hear me. He blinked hard, twice. Then he looked at me— really looked at me— for what felt like the first time. His eyes were open and undefended, gazing softly and directly into mine. I told him I loved him. He couldn’t speak, but his eyes said it back. With no veils between us, I let him watch me cry.
In the days after his death, I retreated to my childhood bedroom whenever I was weary with grief. Neighbors and friends dropped by with casseroles and condolences. One such afternoon, I heard Mr. and Mrs. C. in the kitchen with my mother. I roused my collapsed body from the bed. It was Mr. C. who saw me first as I tiptoed down the hallway. He looked at me with concern, and my tears began to flow. He pulled me to his chest with a brief, tight hug, transmitting a piercing volt of fatherly love that I desperately needed. We weren’t used to touching, so neither of us could bear it for long. It was a sweet, tender kiss to the ragged hole in my heart.
Several years ago, Mr. C. began to suffer a slow cognitive decline. He would walk with determination and purpose around the streets of town, searching for home through the darkness of confusion. I last saw him at his ninetieth birthday celebration in 2019. According to Susie, he was worried about whether he would remember the names of his guests. On the day of the party, I walked through the back screen door into the familiar kitchen and spotted Mr. C. across the dining room in a festive red sweater vest. He looked both dapper and vulnerable, clutching a small, shaky plate of cheese crackers and ham biscuits. As I approached, I saw a flicker of uncertainty in his eyes. “Mr. C.?” I offered, tilting my head. I like to imagine I’m the only one who called him that… and I also like to think that’s why he smiled back with recognition. He asked about my life in California, and listened intently. With his usual grace, he gave the child in me again what he had always given her— unspoken confirmation of her goodness.
In the spring of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the country like a wildfire. Sobered by the danger of traveling and gathering, I cancelled my annual plans to visit Virginia. Susie and her mother moved Mr. C. into a memory care facility as dementia claimed his mind. The pandemic distressed him. He had trouble accepting the directive to socially distance, to not invite anyone who dropped by into his home and offer them something to drink. Social distancing violated his code: to offer whatever he had.
One night, I received word from Susie that he was close to death. Her family was on their way to encircle his bed. I imagined myself in the room. When the text message came through to let me know he was gone, my chest cracked into a canyon of emptiness. Sometimes when I close my eyes, I still see his white socks, filled with moonlight. I watch as he steps off the earth and slowly walks up past the pines that sway over Camp, and then onward into the silent, star-filled sky.
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