I wake up, seven years old, with a loopy, jumping feeling in my heart. It is early morning on a school day and I pad to my parents’ room, walk to my mother’s side of the bed, and tell her my heart feels weird. I lie down between my mom and dad in their wide blue-flower-sheeted bed and she places her hand on my chest. Through the fabric of my nightgown she feels an extra jump, an extra squeeze of my heart and she calls the doctor. I spend the morning in the hospital with my father while doctors monitor my heart’s beating and I am later released with white suction cups attached to my chest and a little monitor in a green backpack that I have to wear all day long when I go back to school. The doctor tells me that the suction cups on my chest are there to listen closely to my heart and that if ever I feel the same sensation I had that morning, that same loopy jump, I need only to press hard on one of those suction cups so that the monitor in the green backpack will begin to record what’s going on with my heart. “But whatever you do,” the doctor continues, “don’t press on it unless you feel that sensation.” This kind of statement is a verbal pandora’s box because pressing on the suction cups is exactly what I spend the next twenty-four hours doing, just to see what might happen. You cannot tell a seven year-old not to do something because even if she’s the most well-behaved only child who ever lived, her curiosity about what not to do overrides her good behavior at the drop of a hat. It turns out nothing was wrong with my heart at all, just an extra beat. Like my heart wanted to step outside of its normal routine.
My obsession in those years was with Laura Ingalls Wilder and her novels about growing up with Pa, Ma, and Mary. I watched the television show when I could, not having cable television until well into my middle school years, and took every opportunity to daydream about what it would have been like to be her living on the prairie out West. When I had friends over, we performed scenes from the way we imagined her life to be for my parents who took turns sitting on the couch watching us improvise our “lines.” I distinctly remember one of them asking us if our performance was over and although we probably answered “yes,” I’m sure it never really ended. There are days even now I find myself wondering about what I would do if I were Laura living on the prairie in the freezing cold winter, fearing for my crops and whether or not I’d be able to come up with a good enough Christmas present for Ma.
Mrs. Davis was my teacher who introduced me to Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was a large lady, the largest I’d ever seen, and the moments were few and far between that I saw her on both feet. Most of the time she sat at the front of the room and managed to scold us with her voice, so raspy in her more angry moments that it seemed it could scrape the freckles off your face and in those moments we knew to hush up. Mrs. Davis was a Vermonter through and through, one of those old, small town farm girls who carried the scent of pastures in her hair and wouldn’t deny for a second her love of farm animals and dogs. She had a daughter named Winifred, a charmingly old fashioned name, and who she always referred to as Winnie. I imagined Winnie a scrappy little girl with twin brown braids tied with red ribbon, but she was really much older than my imagination and when I finally met her I was disappointed that she couldn’t be my friend. Mrs. Davis gave us old fashioned peppermint sticks for Christmas. She kept them in a jar on her desk and when we won the game of “Beat the Teacher” in math, that was the prize. I never won one for math, but I sure tried hard. I believe I’ve never tried as hard as I did in all of my experience with math, not even on the SATs, as I did in Mrs. Davis’s class that year. After that, none of my other math teachers had the real, old fashioned, peppermint sticks at Christmastime. Only those dumb candy canes. I knew all along Mrs. Davis was the real deal. It was she who taught me how it was possible to love language so much, to love accents, to love imagining scenes in books. There’s not a day that goes by, not a book I open, that I don’t give small thanks to Mrs. Davis. She died when I was in college and I wrote to Winnie telling her that it was because of Mrs. Davis that I had become who I was. I loved Mrs. Davis with all of my third-grader heart and there is still a large portion of it that belongs to her.
In my desire to be like Laura Ingalls Wilder, I asked my father to build me a playhouse. I’d drawn up images of a little house with gingerbread details. I’d pictured a dark blue house, two floors, with windows of real glass and a sloping roof because of the snow. When I think back on it now, the image I’d drawn was rather Victorian and it would have taken a whole crew of engineers and contractors to build what I’d imagined. Thinking my father was the equivalent of that team of professionals, I was pretty shocked when he presented me with five giant pieces of plywood and said, “Here it is!” What we ended up with was a dirt-floored, two cut-out windowed shack whose roof bowed and buckled over time with the weight of a decade of snows and springs and summer downpours. We’d found some leftover paint the same color as our house and with that I painted what I could of the plywood, leaving sixty percent of it unpainted with promises to my mother, summer after summer, that yes, I would paint it. But its unfinished, rough nature became something I loved and after a while I’d decorated it with my parents’ rusty lawn furniture, old citronella candles, and the white aluminum mailbox that had been destroyed in a redneck’s summer night fun of taking a baseball bat to all the mailboxes on our road. At the time, I’d wanted so badly to be like my dad, to join the Vermont National Guard because of the MREs he’d bring home from weekend trainings, to be a carpenter because I liked standing in his basement woodshop inhaling the scent of pipe smoke and sawdust while listening to Count Basie or Glen Miller on the oldies AM station. When I could, I dressed up in his camouflage and had him run me through marching drills. And when we were together we futzed around downstairs in the basement workshop, him working on building birdfeeders at his bench and me on my sanding projects at the little bench he’d built for me. I loved the weight of the red iron clamps he bought for me, how the hammer fit perfectly into my hands, how he explained how to use each tool and put his dry hands over mine and to guide my movements with the little saw. He set me up with all the tools he thought I’d ever need and I’ve used each one of them, whether they were in my workbench or not.
But of all this time, the most important was my mother’s stories of Camp Arcadia. It was where she went to camp when she was a little girl until she was at the end of her teenage years. It was in Maine and both she and my aunt spent their childhood summers there. As a result, I grew up with the most magical stories of life at Camp Arcadia. On long car rides down to the Carolinas in the summer, my mother would regale me with stories about Peanut Island and canoeing on Lake Pleasant. Somehow she’d make it so that my stuffed animals were campers at Camp Arcadia and she told me of their adventures over the summer. I listened with bated breath, with wonder about what this little magical world called Camp was all about. On days when I was sick, my mother would rub my back and tell me those stories and I would temporarily suspend my attention to my sickness while my Care Bear and my doll named Baby canoed from Camp to Casco, or as they stayed awake in a nighttime downpour and needed to figure out a way to start a fire. I cannot remember a time when I was young that a story of Camp Arcadia did not thrill me beyond words and the tears I cried were very real when I learned, on Christmas morning of my fifth grade year, that in the coming June I would be going there myself. I shook with excitement for hours afterwards. I think in all my years it is the only present I ever wanted so much, so thoroughly, without even knowing until it sat there in my hands: a little notecard in a giant box, written neatly in calligraphy “This summer you are going to Camp Arcadia!”
Oh, how those tears rolled down my cheeks: the first time I remember crying with happiness.