The Tent

We were asked to write a story in preparation for our Anderson Ranch class, Drawing As Installation. It was to be about a childhood memory that could contain exaggeration, imagination and invention. It didn't have to be totally true, but needed to have a grain of truth in it. Here is my story. If you don't like long posts, exit now. I did this little painting/illustration in my journal to go along with it. Think of it as your summer reading.


The Tent

Paloma sits looking at her hands and remembering that summer
day in her grandmother’s dining room. She was there for a visit and was sitting
as her grandmother was having her Lipton tea. Always Lipton tea. In a china cup
with a saucer, tea bag steeping in the steaming water, the tag and paper
wrapping,  not removed, but spread
out like a banner announcing the main event. For the first time she really
noticed her grandmother’s hands. Wrinkled, but soft. Age spots dotted the backs
of her hands, announcing more than 90 years of walking the green earth she
still loved to till and weed and savor. She looks at her own hands and suddenly
sees the same hands, only they are hers. Tears well, the passage of time
collapses. These hands that have loved and quarreled and wrestled with pencils
and flung paint, soothed broken hearts and torn skin, loved a man, two children
and 5 grand children. Her mind still nimble but somewhat frayed, she suddenly
remembers that old tent. The one that has brought her so much pleasure and
adventure. Her mind had a way of doing time gymnastics, one thing leading to
another, synapses cross firing at will.

And so her mind wanders back to the day she found it. It was
a summer day of her 9th year. Nothing much happening in the neighborhood.
She woke up as usual hearing the meadowlarks call to each other in the field
across from her house. The 60’s style subdivision was roaring it’s way across
the high plains, but a bit of prairie still remained. Enough for the
meadowlarks anyway. She got up and hastily threw on her clothes, opened the
front door, stepped outside and awaited the day. It was like this every summer
day. Open the door, step outside and see which of the neighborhood kids were
awake. She noticed that Mabel and Georgia’s garage door was open (housing that
new Buick their daddy had been bragging about all week). She siddled up to the
house, looking for signs of life. Mabel was rummaging around in the back of the
garage, looking for their box. She and Georgia and Mabel believed themselves to
be scavengers and salvagers of lost treasure. They just knew treasures awaited
them in the gutters of Martin Acres.

Many summer days went this same way. Mabel and Georgia,
twelve year old twins, had moved in just as school was ending, in fact it was
on Track and Field Day. Paloma remembers being introduced to them, two blue
ribbons in hand – one for the 100 yard dash and one for the relay team. Her Aunt
Maggie said she ran like the wind. 
Georgia wandered out the front door, screen door slamming behind her.
They wandered the streets until noon, arguing a bit about their path. Georgia
wanted to take the frontage road next to the highway, a block over, while Mabel
insisted on heading south to the gravel road that bordered the new, ever
expanding, prairie eating subdivision. People and cars and bulldozers threw off
and abandoned the most interesting detritus and they had boxes of found
treasure. Hubcaps, old watches, torn and smudged love letters, grocery lists,
countless washers, bolts, nuts, screws and mysterious car parts. Once they even
found a broken television. Which was completely startling. Why would someone
abandon a television set? The front was broken and the glass shattered,
revealing a treasure trove of tubes and parts.

The hunt was really the thing. Their treasure boxes were
neatly organized by Georgia’s somewhat arcane sorting method. Round with square
because they were opposites and small parts must be right next to the big parts
so they could get bigger ideas of themselves. After a round of “rock, paper,
scissors”, it was decided they would walk along the gravel road. Their decision
quickly rewarded with some old car parts that needed to be disassembled.
Paloma’s Aunt had stored some old tools in the carport just off her room. She
knew she wasn’t’ supposed to get into her Aunt’s things, but just this once she
opened the creaking door to have a look around. After a little scrounging she
found the wrench she thought would work. She’d had to climb up a stack of her
Aunt belongings to reach the Master Tool Box that held the tool she needed.
Just next to this box was a roll of army green canvas with a tiny tag that read
“Tent No. 52: Property of Caravan of Dreams”. Curious, that her Aunt Maggie
hadn’t taken this on her most recent assignment to Morocco. Her Aunt was an
archaeologist employed by the National Geographic Society. Paloma yanked and
pulled until the rolled canvas came loose from it’s tightly rolled spot. She
would already be in trouble for borrowing the wrench, so she decided to take
this old tent out to her favorite spot by the creek under an old cottonwood
standing guard as the subdivision encroached. Away from the prying, meddling
eyes of the grownups in her life, who were just fun suckers, she gathered Mabel
and Georgia and their box of latest treasures and headed for the cottonwood.
The tent would make a nice shady retreat from the unrelenting afternoon sun or
the daily rain shower that came almost every afternoon around 3:00. Either way,
they’d have a place to call their own where they could sort and clean and
admire their treasure.

The tent went up pretty easily. A couple of stakes to anchor
the corners, a pole in the center, a flap covered the front. The renegade
scavengers stood back to admire their handiwork and decided to have a look
inside. When they stepped inside they could hardly believe their eyes. The tent
was HUGE! Three large rooms appeared with ceilings 10 feet tall. Beautiful
lights hung from the ceilings, they looked Moroccan with their cut out
geometric patterns. Shelves of picture books lined the walls and big tables
stood ready for their assignments. They’d have plenty of room to sort their
treasures now. There was a tiny Hobbit kitchen with a tea kettle and a tray of
beautiful tea cups all laid out for them, with tins of teas from all over the
world. A tiny fridge, like nothing they’d ever seen before, held milk and fruit
and little cakes. Across from the tiny Hobbit kitchen stood a cabinet with the
most beautiful jars of paint and paint brushes and jars of colored pencils and
scissors of all shapes and sizes. Stacks of papers of all types had a shelf of
their own. In the opposite corner was a couch that the three of them could curl
up on. There were ceiling fans to cool them and the strangest thing was that there
was sunlight, but they couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Needless to say,
this was the very best thing they had ever found. Thinking they were dreaming,
they backed out of the tent believing at any moment the whole thing was a
mirage and would disappear in a blink of an eye.  Out they went and amazingly they were still under the
cottonwood by the creek, bulldozers groaning in the background. Everything
seemed as it should be. They threw open the flap and went back in and
miraculously the inside of tent was just the same as well. Cool, filled with
golden light, tea kettle steaming, tables waiting for their sorting assignment.
They really couldn’t believe their good fortune. Instead of questioning it,
they just said a silent thank you to Paloma’s Aunt and the great universe which
they knew so little of. The tent stood by the cottonwood all that long, hot
summer and the girls all spent a significant part of each day exploring it’s
startling interior. Many, many creations were explored and recombined with each
new day of scavenging.

The tent came down as easily as it had gone up around the
time of the first snow in early October. Paloma rolled it up and put it back in
the carport among Aunt Maggie’s other things. Mabel and Georgia packed up the
Buick and moved to New Mexico with their loud, but entertaining family. But
every summer Paloma would unearth Tent No. 52 and set it up. Sometimes under
the cottonwood and sometimes in her backyard, it was always as she had left it
and she grew to trust it’s ample, inviting and lush interior.

Paloma smiles at the thoughts of the tent. It’s rolled up in
her basement and it’s just about summer and time to unfurl it once again. She
remembers a quote from a book that has stayed with her always. And she wonders
a bit about the tent and if her mind has frayed a little too much – but the
reality of the tent, even though questioned by others, remains steadfast. She
closes her eyes and remembers.

“I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever
after, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone through and through me, like wine
through water, and altered the colour of my mind.” Emily Bronte


4 Responses to The Tent

  1. lyle baxter says:

    funny thing about that tent! mine was an enormous privet hiding a corner of my home. It didnt come equipped but I could create what I needed. maybe we all have a tent in our past! what fun! lyle

  2. Whitney says:

    mom you are really really really amazing. you don’t even know it. you can do anything and everything. i love and miss you soo much. <3

  3. Jan Korr says:

    I have a very similar memory of Grandmother’s hands from when I was 8-9, as we sat in a sunny dining room spot and she made doll clothes for me. I too was moved by her hard working-remarkable hands. I loved your painting of the backyard tent, evocative and accurate. The story is wonderfully imaginative, wouldn’t we all love to have such a magical tent. XX Mom

  4. rajasee ray says:

    lovely story 🙂
    echoing lyle baxter above, my own tent was a blanket that my grand uncle used to suspend with his walking stick over our heads. and then we’d have adventures hiding away from the wild beasts in the jungles outside 🙂

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