I was thinking about marshmallows when my mother died.
Thinking about the warm, white mass melting against a sharp, crisp cracker, steaming the chocolate to drip over and complete the sweet combination.
S’mores taste like childhood. Even when you turn thirty-one and roasting white pillows over the flame of a kitchen stove or fire grill, it still tastes of summer vacation and sleep-away camp.
I have a nasty habit of lighting mine on fire … the marshmallow.
It’s not that I love the bitter taste of charcoal. There’s no fear of undercooking. It seems that there is something about holding that stick in the smouldering flame for as long as possible. Long enough for the white cloud to burst into flame … and then, its too late. Something about seeking a threshold. Eventually, you can no longer turn back.
Crap. I burnt it.
Of course you did. You hold it too close.
But that must be it. Getting as close as possible. When else can we extend ourselves to reach into flame and in return receive such sweetness? It is the marshmallow that takes the fall, not I. It is the marshmallow’s skin that bubbles and singes over the heat, that blisters into gooey goodness, not my own. And under the crispy bitterness of burnt skin lies the sweet, white center, untarnished and easy to devour.
You are holding it too close, it’s going to burn.
It will not. I will be careful.
Wait for it…
In 1959 I still would burn my marshmallows, but stop soon after.
In 1959 we would pack the car, drive into the evergreen, build and fire and burn.
We always remembered to pack the marshmallows, they are an imperative item. My mother was a prolific packer and organizer, setting things out days in advance and arranging a system for optimal convenience. Her dark hair would tumble over the suitcase as she worked.
Kyle, did you pull out which socks you would like me to pack? Everything needs to be finished tonight, before bedtime. We are leaving first thing in the morning – 7am sharp.
Kyle? Do you hear me?
Some iteration of this always but things are a little different this time around.
There’s a schedule, stricter than usual. People are joining us, some of my mother’s friends. We would all travel beyond Spokane, to Twin Lakes.
We. My mother, my younger (half) brother Denny and myself. We were always with her, my brother and myself. She could have left us with Denny’s father Robert, which was sometimes the case.
Robert was Denny’s father, not my own, but there was never much of a difference. When he and my mother separated, they remained on good terms and I continued to visit Robert anytime Denny went along.
It’s good that you are here. I want to see you. Doesn’t matter what happened between your mother and I, you are my son.
And he was right. We didn’t share DNA, but we shared a name.
And I suppose we shared an admiration for my mother. Even after they separated, Robert always talked fondly of my mother, treated her with respect. If there was any underlying tension, it was hidden from Denny and myself. Robert eventually remarried, to a horrible woman that would live up to the stereotype.
Much later, years into my 20’s, I would meet my birth father but it didn’t cast a shadow on Robert and I’s relationship. Of course, Robert left my life almost as quickly as he came into it, passing away before I reached adulthood, and leaving behind him dark nights and screaming children.
She could have left us with Robert, would have been easier for her. But she decided to allow us the adventure. She was always generous.
We had loaded all the appropriate gear into the back of our 1951 Oldsmobile station wagon the night before; tents, sleeping bags, flashlights, coolers, food, fishing poles and other essential equipment rustled and rattled as we made our way to Twin Lakes.
Just as planned, we left at 7am with Denny still rubbing the sleep from his eyes. I knew that I only had a few moments in the front seat until we pulled up to Eva’s house, my mother’s friend, who would claim the front seat as soon as she stepped out of her front door. I would be forced to retire to the back with Denny. It was early enough that his usual restlessness wouldn’t effect me too much, its possible that he would sleep a little while longer. Probably just as my mother had intended.
Eva and my mother would soon be laughing in the front seat.
Denny was sleeping now. I knew I didn’t want to sleep. I planned on cracking the window and taking in the evergreens. As we whizzed down the highway, everything moving so fast that it was a constant streak of dark, forest green. The Oldsmobile seemed to hit every small crevasse in the road, lightly lifting Denny and I off the seats with every bump. I remember the springs.
The Oldsmobile was the only car I ever knew, its navy blue exterior and worn, leather interior as familiar to me as my baseball glove. A little worn but lovingly bonded.
I had known that car before I knew Robert or Denny, when it was just my mother and I, and all that was between her and a sleepless night was allowing the road to lull me to sleep. I had slept, laughed, cried, screamed, talked and sang in that car. I had been ill, been afraid and sought refuge in the soft shoulder of the leather seat. It always surprised me to get out on the highway and see how fast the wagon would rail against the wind, it was never like that in town. Only at these speeds could I allow my hand to ride on the wind.
When we turned onto the familiar dirt path which lead to the campsite, Denny was finally perking up by this point and were both ready to jump out of the car before it came to a stop.
More of my mother’s friends were meeting us at the campsite later in the afternoon; it was essential with our party of eight to get a campsite large enough for all the tents or two sites alongside one another. Eva and my mother deliberated before finally settling on two smaller plots in the corner of the site. The plots sat next to one another and alongside, what I remember to be, a perfectly picturesque river.
Decades later I would take my own children to a similar campsite in Montana, watching them test the limits of depth. She always going in a little further than he. And snapping fishing lines against the air, her impatience always wearing before his. She never hated fishing a much as I did, but she is so similar to her dear ol’ dad that her impatience tickles me.
This is where they filmed “A River Runs Through It.”
We know. You tell us all the time.
Oh, alright. Well, it’s pretty special.
Denny and I loved to wade in as far as we could until the current told us to turn back. This year Denny was old enough to let go of my hand and I was happy to release it.
Every year someone managed to slip on the mossy rocks of the river and plummet into the water, arising with embarrassing laughter. Of course, I did not share in the laughter when this person happened to be me.
We all pitched in to help set up camp before Denny and I were ushered away to explore.
Not too far. Don’t go near the highway.
Or the otherside of the river.
Right … well, have fun.
Boundaries were set. No matter, the wilderness was a generous playground. Denny wanted to fish but I convinced him to skip rocks instead.
Better wait on the grown ups for that. You can’t even tie off your own line.
Boys turn everything into a competition, so even skipping rocks no longer remains an activity of leisure, but an opportunity to overcome and opponent.
Now I watch as she skips stones beside her younger brother, never against one another always with one another. I envy this companionship. They still bicker and she screams for independence, but it isn’t the same as two boys wrestling it out in every little thing. In the end, they will hold one another’s hand through life.
I will loose them both but they will have each other.
Additional company showed up a little after lunch.
Tony and Debbie were a nice couple, young like my mother, but without children. I don’t know why they didn’t have any children, but I also never questioned. They treated Denny and I like we were younger siblings, having fun with us but also keeping a responsible eye. I suppose to allow my mother a little relief.
Tony and Debbie would stay behind at the campsite with Denny and I that evening while Eva and mother went back into town to pick up Eva’s boyfriend Dick and a friend of his, who I assume was meant to be a match for my mother.
I never met the man.
Eva and my mother would head out after dinner, after the fire started to get restless.
Shoot. I’m sorry Kyle. I forgot the marshmallows. I knew there was something …
I will get some while Eva and I are in town, how’s that?
Will you be back before we go to bed?
I don’t know. It might be late.
It’s okay though, Debbie can help you get ready for bed.
But what about s’mores?
Well, we have all week for that. We don’t need to have them every night, do we?
Well…I don’t know…we’ll see.
We’ll see? That means ‘no.’
No, it means ‘we’ll see’.
I think ‘we’ll see’ might be a child’s least favorite response.
My own children despise it.
‘We’ll see.’ But we wouldn’t.
Eva and my mother never made it back that evening. Debbie kissed both Denny and I before we went to sleep, giggling until the gas ran out and we were fast asleep.
Campside mornings might be my favorite time. The tent is wet with dew and your breath leaps out before you from the mountainside chill. But even in the chill of morning, the fire of the red sun burned through my iris and something within me strained. The sky was alive with the flame of the morning and the campsite felt still. Something was missing.
That night as my mother and Eva went into town, they were in an accident. My mother’s body was forcefully slammed against the steering wheel. Too far from medical attention and in the late hours of the night, her lungs were flooded and I never saw my mother alive again. Or her body.
Eva would walk away a broken woman, feeling the undeserving survivor of a disaster. And when I close my eyes, I see her engulfed in the flames alongside my mother’s body. I saw these two beautiful ladies thrust into the campfire, but never returning.
I was eight years old and I haven’t cried since my mother’s death. I am sixty-four years old now, with four children of my own.
I don’t remember the last conversation I had with my mother. I wish I could. I remember the damn marshmallow encounter and then, nothing.
Maybe if I squint enough I can see her hand out the window, waving back at Denny and I in the darkness, but it could be projected. All I really see is the flames of the fire and scent of charcoal.
People talk about this, what is the last thing said or ‘I wish I would’ve said…,’ but I would give everything to remember anything said. As far as I know, I was only thinking about marshmallows.
My daughter asks about my mother a lot. She seems to call upon her ghost every now and again, perhaps in searching for her own mother, but also in searching for herself. I can see my daughter longing to be like her, wanting her pale blue eyes to look more like her fathers, but she looks ‘just like herself.’
I tell her about my mother’s dark hair, her dark eyes, olive skin and long limbs. I tell her that she moved with grace, that she loved to go dancing and that she was strong. I pull out black and white photos and I can see in my daughter’s eyes that my mother is a myth and a fantasy, far from her own mother. Maybe it is better like this. My mother as a myth, for my daughter and for I. If you only spend eight years with a parent, you only know them as an ideal, you know them before they become human and they shattered before your grown eyes, as I have before my own children.
After my mother’s death, I went on to live with grandmother for a time, but spent most of my life with my mother’s sister, who became like a second mother to me. A few years ago, she took my breath away.
My mother’s sister, Jill, was an emergency room nurse. The night of my mother’s death, she happened to be working in the emergency room where my mother’s body was brought after the accident, as it happened to be the closest hospital. She was working the night shift and her sisters body was rolled into the ER in a black bag. Her sister’s lifeless and mutilated body before her, in her place of work, and I wondered, ‘what did you do?’
I finished my shift.