Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Nickerson Again

I think it's from a Sandra Cisneros story--about how, at every age, you still have all your other ages rattling around inside you. It's so true. I used to picture time as this rope you followed along, hand over hand, into the distance, but it's nothing like that. It moves outward but holds everything that's come before. Cut me open and I'm a tree trunk, rings of nostalgia radiating inward.

This is what I'm thinking, camping for the eleventh year in a row, in the exact campsite where we have pitched our tent since Ben was a baby. At the picnic table I write on a pad, "like rings in a tree trunk, all the years inside all the years," and my friend Nicole sees it and asks if it's a poem. "No. It's just camping. Every year I think about the year before when I was thinking about the year before, and it goes all the way back. You know?" "I think you said that last year," our friend Jonathan says, and I say, "Exactly." In fact, writing this just now, I Googled "Catherine Newman matryoshka dolls" and sure enough--I've also described camping that way, all the years nested inside each other. It is my own personal house of mirrors, writing about it. Here first, for example. And then here. And here. And here. And here. And here. And, um, here. Oh, and also here.

I drive everybody crazy with my nostalgia and happiness. I am bittersweetness personified. Only, for some reason, the older the kids get, the less filled with dread I am about their growing up--it's sweeter and sweeter, with just a thin bitter core filled with the babies who are gone from us, with snapshots of their chubby pink cheeks. Mostly, it just gets better and better: everybody swimming and biking and wiping their own cracks; fewer marshmallows stuck to weeping heads of hair and less vigilance required from the grown-ups. "I can't believe how much better it gets!" I exclaim, as the kids tear around the campground in wild bicycling circles while we sit at the campfire with our beers and happiness. "I think you said that last year," Jonathan says. Exactly.

I have always loved the camping, but now I look back and feel like maybe it kind of used to suck. I mean, there was the beach: nursing a hot and sandy somebody in a little blowing-away tent, a pee-bloated swim diaper soaking in my lap. Or the campsite itself, where I seemed to spend every minute chasing my miniature humans away from the road, or shepherding them up to the bathroom so they could admire the vast and flapping entomology lab while pooping for hours on end. I know I loved it. I did. But seriously.

In fact, we saw a couple out by the bay with a two-month-old--and they were trying to keep it out of the sun, and the baby was red and crying, and the parents were taking turns wading into the water up to their ankles before darting back to make sure the other person wasn't mad at them for being gone so long, and I wanted to say, "Oh, go home. Turn on the AC and the TV, and just relax. You can go to the beach later, when it's older." But I remember how much fun we thought we were having--and were, I'm sure--and I spare them my demented advice.

Oh, but then, some things don't change at all. I walk down the road to our campsite with Birdy's hand in mine, and it is this same moment from my entire life of mothering her: her trust and curiosity. Her absolute hereness. "Is it true, about stars, about how we see them even if they're maybe not still shining?" she wants to know, and I could burst into tears, like the weirdo I am. "I think it is," I say, "but it is so hard to understand." I feel her fingers in mine, the full moon rising up into the pines like a cosmic lantern, the squirrels chuckling to themselves in the branches above us, and I want only now. The glow that lasts beyond itself. And I have it.

The beach.

The Pond, also known as Heaven on Earth. It is the most beautiful spot on the planet, and we are always the only people there. There just happened to be 16 of us this year. . . 

The Brewster General Store. We bought Turkish taffy and gummy coke bottles and Mary Janes and black licorice and jawbreakers and caramel bull's eyes.

The thrill of victory (bean bag toss).

And the agony of defeat (mini golf).

This was The Year of Whittling. We whittled and whittled and it was so much fun. I cannot recommend it enough. Try it: make chopsticks, because then you'll have a goal. And also something beautiful at the end, besides your own blistered hands.

Ben whittled. "I should pitch this to FamilyFun," I said, dreamily, and he said, "Good idea, Mama. You could call the piece  'Fun with Fire and Knives.'" Oh, right.

Birdy whittled.

Everybody whittled. It is the most companionable activity ever. Only a very few injuries were sustained.

Shavings galore. By the time we packed up camp, it looked like hamsters had been living there.


And more chopsticks. Seriously, do try this at home, but don't cut off your leg or anything, okay?

"If we had ham, we could have ham and eggs," Michael's dad likes to joke--"If we had eggs." Luckily, we had eggs.

And home-grown ham. And raspberries from our friends' patch. Also fluffer-nutter sandwiches. Just so you don't think we're so fancy.

If you bring pizza dough camping but forget to use it, fry it up in bacon fat the last morning.

Then fill it with raspberry jam and be prepared for the best donuts you ever ate in your life.

Camp Rice and Beans. Fry garlic in olive oil, add 2 pouches of Success Instant Brown Rice (out of the pouch), one can of black beans with their liquid, one bean-can of water, half a cup of salsa, and some salt and lime juice. Simmer until the liquid is absorbed (10 minutes) then turn off the heat, top with cheddar cheese, and cover until it melts. So, so good.
I hope you're loving July.



  1. This post is why I love your writing. It just ties it all together, everything I've read of yours. The nostalgia, the humor, the realness, the layers. The fact that before I read "I could burst into tears," my eyes had already started tearing up at Birdy's star comment. 'Cause if you're a weirdo, I guess I am too. Thanks for brightening the world.

  2. Oh, tears. We're planning our annual camping trip right now. We've been going to the same spot every year since our children were toddlers, and I feel the same way. It's amazing how much more they can do with each passing year. It really does get better.

  3. I just returned "The Story of Chopsticks" to the library this morning; whittling your own reminds me of that book. Brewster is lovely. Our friend Jen, who introduced Kaj to me, is from there. My dad's college roommate is also from Brewster, and we visited when I was about 9. Very memorable trip. Lots of sand fleas. You don't find cooking over a campfire intimidating, I take it. My verification word is erizable. I like it.

  4. Jolynn12:52 PM

    Beautiful, beautiful post.

  5. Chris1:03 PM

    Love this. Also love the 'It gets better' theme. We're about to spend a week on the Oregon coast and all I can picture is my 8 month old gorging on sand and little bits of trash he'll find on the beach. Oh and my 3 year old being carried away by a sneaker wave. I clearly already need a vacation from our vacation.

  6. Jamie2:06 PM

    Aw. I think I too have a case of the summer nostalgia blues. When did my 6 year old girl turn into a total swimmer, a kid I can watch from the edge of the pool while my feet hang in the water? Just yesterday she was a little thing who needed to be carried, who wore a "swim" diaper I was always a little worried about.

    You could use the chopsticks as hair sticks, too! Love the whittling idea. Thanks for writing.

  7. Hooray for whittling! Here (small town Denmark) the kids (6-9yrs) whittle at the after school program. It is so satisfying.

  8. kellyg3:22 PM

    Ha! What you call Camp Rice and Beans, we call Keagy Rice. When my son was about 2 that was his favorite meal.

    I get the same way when we go to my in-laws place on the lake.

  9. This post sort of took my breath away, Catherine. I am certain that the very first word of yours I ever read was about camping with Ben on the beach. The funny part about this post was that I remember thinking, "she makes it sound ... fun?" when I was a at a point when things with my 2 little ones weren't always feeling fun, but rather like so much work and frustration. But even then, your words helped me see that it was, if not exactly "fun", a memory in the making, a precious piece of time. Now mine are 13 and 11 and it IS better and they ARE more fun, even if they aren't adorable babies anymore. Thanks for everything, Catherine. You have no idea how many times you have been a reminder to me that I love my kids.

  10. elandsimom4:09 PM

    I am very curious about the phrase "homemade ham"? Did you cure it yourself?!?!

  11. I love this post and the rings on the tree theme (though I was thinking stackable cups) and how it does get so much better. Not that it sucked before but sometimes it did, a lot, and the only saving grace was how scrumptious those kiddos could be to make up for all the diaper-chaning, sweaty-nursing, dead-weight carrying going on. (Self-butt cleaning is under-appreciated as a milestone in my book. I feel it is one of life's most important accomplishments!) Your photos are divine too. Though there's something about camping and eating outdoors--you can serve jam on toast--that makes everything taste so good.

  12. Anonymous5:25 PM

    How about this for a name for your blog--Bittersweet and Salty
    I haven't checked out the other suggestions, so you may already have this one. Still reading and enjoying your posts, but just not able to comment as much --Cathy K

  13. Angela5:39 PM

    Yes - there are many things which I was determined should be fun during the baby days, and well, actually they were... just hard work!! But isn't it all so much more fun now (kids 6 and nearly 4), and yesterday is absolutely part of today... Thanks for your eloquence!

    Guest appearance by the watermelon tablecloth! It's still with you too :)

  14. Great post!!!!! I love it when you get all nostalgic. Then I know I am not the only one who may burst into tears at any time over some simple but exceedingly profound utterance from one of my kidlets!

  15. tracey8:48 PM

    I used to marvel (still do) at how you camped with a baby, then two. (Loved the advice you considered for the couple with the wee baby...) Only now am I finally ready to take it on - with "babies" that are 10 and 8. I still have a camping article of yours from Family Fun - or was it Wondertime? - that I'll refer to before we venture out. Oh, and the bean recipe and chopstick whittling are definites!
    Thank you always for the truly magical way you put words to my thoughts...

  16. Rebecca9:46 PM

    Ok, I loved this post. Also, for your blog name I was thinking of Newman's Grown, as kind of a play on Newman's Own but then I googled it & turns out it's some kind of medical marijuana cooking base company...

  17. heather10:17 PM

    awesome. I totally agree with everything, and am SO amazed about the doughnuts!

  18. Smack. This post smacked me right back to all your other posts and I think everyone else has said it, but no one else does bittersweet like you do. Your camping posts when the kids were little used to make me think, "how do they do it?" Of course now, it all seems so right, part of the fabric of the story you weave so well.

    Your cooking posts are great and I love them, but this storytelling and reaching in and capturing the essence of what is a family is what makes you shine.

    There was a post and I know I have referred to it before about a friend of yours telling you (I am paraphrasing here) what are you wishing away this IS it, not later or tomorrow. You have made me a better parent.

  19. Anonymous2:25 AM

    I was just mooning over photos of a friend's private jet weekend in wine country and feeling sorry for myself as I prepare for five days in a tent in Yosemite with two kids. Your post smacked me upside the head and reminded me that although there in no private jet in my foreseeable future, I am blessed, blessed, blessed.

  20. Thank you THANK YOU for a beautiful storytelling nostalgic bittersweet post. I want to write "this is why I fell in love with you", but that sounds weird. But, really, it's true

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. beautiful catherine. i'm so glad you write. thank you. xo

  23. You did love it, back then, but I remember you also sort of hated it, what with all the sand up in everyone's sandyness. Sand in bed! Sand in the food! Sand, sand, sand. I often think of this with my own kids. Here's to life getting better and better.

  24. casio9:42 AM

    Thanks for another lovely glimpse into the future.

  25. Catherine, this is why I follow you, year after year, across the internet skyscape. You are a fellow traveler in the weepy and poignant, yet ever-so-grateful, world of parenting that I, too, travel. My husband and I started camping annually in beautiful Northern Michigan with a close group of friends when our daughter was two. Every year - same site, same beach, same friends; so the nostalgia begins before we've even left the driveway. This year, our kids are 9,6, and 19 months. I can appreciate how much easier things will be with the older kids, but I'm already mourning the babyhood of my youngest (camping pitfalls and all), and I'm glad that someone else understands this insanity.

  26. Oh how I loved this post. I think I'll need to read it about once a month, sniffling and smiling.

    It's all so true, how each year it gets so much easier. It's so easy now that I can't believe we ever camped when my youngest was a 2 year old Frankenstein-ian toddler, all diapered and non-hiking and full of entitlement of my breasts.

    In two years we'll probably look back and wonder how we did it with a 4 and 6 year old, how we could have thought it was easy.

    Thanks again for your beautiful writing, for your ability to lay out the truths of motherhood.

  27. Maureen12:32 PM

    Oh! We were in the same area last week and had a blast! We go every year too. Love Nickerson- the water is so lovely - we don't camp anymore, but stay right on the bay (Linger Longer by the Sea) where we get the privilege of watching the tide go in and out and taking long walks along the flats at low tide. My kids and my nieces just love going to the ponds. And the Store for CANDY. This year they discovered and fixated on those kinda horrible little wax bottles with liquid in the. Had to laugh at the mini golf photo- if you were at the same place we were - the one with the crazy bright blue waterfall - I especially love it because of the atypical landscaping (purple coneflowers and shrubs) - there was MINT growing all around the early holes!!!!

  28. so awesomely classic "catherine newman", hilarious, sweet, a tiny bit sad, nostalgic and that amazing dark sense of humor that i totally get and have too! love love love it. won't be camping anytime soon though with a 15 mo. old!

  29. I came home from camping today... just myself, a two year old and a three month old. And even though it was fun, and not even too hard, I can totally see your point. My 6 and 8 year old girls were at camp (it was ridiculous, a three hour drive, and I decided that camping was easier than driving twice with the little ones) and it would have been so much less stressful with the big ones. No issue with it being 95 degrees and trying to figure out where to nap, for example. Or trying to take a shower with the toddler and also trying to make room for the baby seat and not get her wet. And the whole bathroom phobia thing - he insisted that it couldn't be clean, you know, because of the spiders.

    And just when I thought I had it nailed, totally packed up and a successful three days behind us, the cheerful neighbors mentioned how the other campers were concerned that I was out here "without my man" and thought I was an abused mom hiding in the woods with her kids. Because obviously no same person would camp with little people all on her own. SIGH.

    Anyway, I'm the one who requested camping recipes a long time ago and you graciously posted them. And we didn't make ANY of them. :) Mostly we ate a lot of granola and homemade graham crackers and fruit. I did manage a small fire for marshmallows one night and eggs one morning, but the more adventurous cooking can wait until these little people get a bit bigger.

    All of the camping memories are so great, even the sort of sucky ones. I guess that's the definition of nostalgia, eh? Like maybe it wasn't that great but we choose to dwell just on those beautiful parts.

  30. Jennifer4:40 PM

    Such a beautiful post, Catherine. I have thought many, many times this summer that everything is easier with older kids. (mine are 7and 11)They are both strong swimmers, great bicycle riders, can make their own breakfast and one of them does laundry. At the same time, I miss their chubby babyhoods. So bittersweet.

  31. You just got me totally in the mood to go to our family cottage (read: more like a shack with electricity and running water) on Lake Huron this weekend, which I have kind of been not thrilled about until this minute. We just went three weeks ago, and it was really fun as always, but it IS just so hard to do that sort of trip with littles. Especially one who still has to be walked up the very very long hill to go to the bathroom. And the baby who won't nurse if anyone else is around (which, wth, baby?) so I have to go find a quiet place ALONE while everyone else sips sparkling wine concoctions and sunscreens each other gaily and reads their trashy beach books. Sometimes I totally feel like I should take your mental advise to the baby's parents and just go home and watch TV until everyone can more or less look after themselves on vacation! But I'm always happy we went, so...

  32. I had a dream last night about the perfect name for your blog. It was so logical and amazing! But, alas, I woke up and didn't think about it until now. So, of course, the awesome name is gone to the land of dream problems solved. I'm glad you had an awesome time camping, eating and whittling. It sounds pretty cool.
    Of course things get easier every year when it comes to outings with the kids. But when they are little, you cannot imagine anything becoming easier... so you might as well enjoy it. Only it does! Yay for the rosy reflection our memories give to the nightmares of yesteryear.
    By the way, I will be making your bean concoction at some point in the coming weeks. For dinner at home... even though camping food never tastes as good when it does when you are actually camping. I'll never fully understand that.

    Till next time!

  33. I look forward to your Nickerson blogs every year.

  34. Looks like you all had a wonderful time camping! I completely get what you mean about the nestedness of those recurrent holidays. We go skiing yearly and each time we go is like an extension of the time before. Time stops on the snow fields - it's always white and wondrous and the kids just get bigger and more fun.

    And I LOVE Fun with Fire and Knives - sounds delightful and we'll have to try it (we've only tried fun with fire previously).


  35. Joy Fasnacht12:52 PM

    So beautiful, Catherine. I am teary as i sit here with my 5 week old asleep on my chest & my 10 year old happily painting in the next room. camping for us has been so, so much easier & fun the last couple of years. now, i think, are we going to try it again anytime soon? sounds too hard right now ;)

  36. "Fun with Fire and Knives" sounds like what we do at Cub Scouts, (among other things), seriously.
    I look forward to your annual camping posts. We also go to Nickerson but this year checked out Lake Dennison, (much closer to your neck of the woods). It was lovely and so much fun with a 9 and 11 year old!

  37. Oh how it does get easier. I'm so thankful, but its bitter sweet.

    We love to backcountry camp by canoe. Our first time going with children was when they were 2 and 4 and it was a nightmare. It rained the whole time we paddled in to the site, we spent the first day stressing that one of them would fall off the cliff that was the edge of our campsite, it was 2 degrees celsius at night and our youngest came down with a bout of diarrhea that had us traipsing to the thunder box constantly. We left early.

    Scarred from that experience, we just recently took them again (age 7 & 9). 3 days backcountry camping on a river. They loved it! and so did Dad and I! They zipped up their own sleeping bags, helped set up camp and "got" the solitude and peacefulness.

    I miss the toddler years, but am loving the freedom of now and their new found appreciation and understanding of the bigger picture.

    Now is wonderful, and I dread the teenage years when they no longer want to experience these things with us, then look forward to them having their own families and passing all of these experience on to their children to create their own memories.

  38. Reading your words feels like I'm swimming around inside your life, your mind, your heart. (In a totally if-the-inside-of-you-was-like-a-clear-blue-warm-tide-pool sort of way, filled with rare beauty, appearing slightly soft around the edges here and there as an effect of looking through water, and sometimes so brilliantly crisp. But you knew what I meant, right?)

    This is just to say I love the way you put the words together. They're always in just the right order with you.


    (My verification word is unpou, which sounds French and a little dirty to me. Or small.)

  39. Anonymous10:44 PM

    Where did you learn to whittle? What kind of wood and knives did you use?

  40. Thanks for the rice and beans recipe! We're trying to plan our first camping trip with our 4 year old for next weekend. This post is so lovely. You make me wish I'd gone camping every year now. I haven't been since I was a wee Girl Scout. Now I'm 7 months pregnant and thinking I'll have to remind myself how good it will be to look back through rose-colored glasses.

  41. I look forward to your annual camping updates as I remember reading about your trips with a small Ben and then a tiny Birdy. I don't think I've been in the midst of all the sandyness myself without thinking of you! Thank you for sharing your nostalgia, your humor, and your sweet family.

  42. Beautiful post Catherine! People thought we were crazy to camp with a 4 month old and 2 year old on my 30th birthday. In August. In Texas. And maybe they're right, but I wouldn't trade the memory of sitting on a dirt road with my husband sipping champagne out of camp cups watching as we spun beneath the Milky Way with the girls asleep in the tent 20ft away for anything. It was Exactly how I wanted to start a new decade. Though the stars did scare my oldest. Note to self- camp with the girls more often!

  43. Oh, Catherine, please keep writing forever. Because I've been reading you since that wonderful camping story about Ben and the runner with the dog.

  44. Anonymous7:08 PM

    Catherine, read some poems by Donald Justice. He's the Poet Laureate of Nostalgia and Bittersweetness.

  45. Anonymous9:06 PM

    We're heading for the Cape this weekend. We go to PTown for family week, but I've always wanted to camp out there. Thank you too, like many posters, I wait for this one ... and the Sandra Cisneros story is called "Eleven" ... eleven years.

  46. Anonymous6:06 PM

    Wonderful writing as always.

  47. Great post. I already know that it gets better from my six year old daughter. Can't seem to remember that truth when dealing with my super energetic 2 1/2 year old son.

  48. beautiful post! I am actually crying while reading it because you have captured so wonderfully my feelings exactly. I was also heard uttering the words "why didnt anyone tell me this was going to get easier and so much more fun?" this year while camping (with my 2 and 4 year old) My guess after reading your post is that it really is only going to get better! YAY!

  49. Anonymous10:13 PM

    I see myself in your bittersweet love for time staying/passing/moving so quickly, and the way you describe your love for Ben and Birdy. Keep writing, keep writing.

  50. Anonymous2:10 AM

    Thank you for this post. As a mama of three littles, reading that it all gets even easier (as each year it seems to all begin to simplify so much more), and your perfect description of it, made me smile. I keep cringing picturing these little people growing up. Feeling sad about it. Feeling lonely when I imagine life with "older" kids. But your post made it all feel so real and alive and beautifully fulfilling. And I will not miss the poop scattered all over the house (now how did that happen today?!), but those little butt cheeks. Maybe. :) Cheers to you. I'm so glad a stumbled upon your blog from another one I read regularly.

  51. I love this post. It sums up how I feel so often much more eloquently than I ever could express. It really resonated with me as I am a mama of a 7 almost 8 month old baby boy and EVERY day I feel so many moments of melancholy over how quickly time is passing, how I just haven't had enough time with him at this stage or that stage... and then your post made me realize there is SO MUCH good stuff yet to come. Thanks :)