The Race, circa 1977

I could hear her behind me.

She was nine. I could tell. I think she had brown hair. Her breathing told me somebody in her family wanted her to win. But I wanted to win, and I wanted a trophy. I had seen them lined up on the table at the beginning of the race. I ran faster, so fast I could feel the separation of body and running, my legs now in charge as they took me in the direction of the Hudson River and the finish line.

I ran down the hill. It hurt to run so fast. I knew to hold on and let my legs take me there. When I got to the finish line, a man with a whistle told me I was the first woman. I smiled, held my sides, breathed deeply and nodded.

I walked over to the big trophy table, the tall golden statues.

I looked up at the man standing behind the table. He had stern skin, long eyebrows.

“I’m here for my trophy,” I said.

He looked at me.

“I won,” I said. “I was the first woman.”

The man shook his head. “The trophies are for the men,” he said.

“But I won,” I said.

He repeated himself.

I repeated myself.

I couldn’t understand it. What was he talking about?

People talked behind the table as I stood there. They leaned in to each other, whispering into ears. I watched.

“Here,” said the man. “You can have the third place men’s trophy.”

I smiled as I reached for it. 

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The Race, circa 1977

Lady of the Ants

When we got out of the car and stood in the parking lot, Eva and I discovered we were Woodlanders.

“Across the field,” said a big lady.

I heard the word “bye” sprinkled around me like rainfall and I said my own bye – “See you in a week!” said my mother. I could see my sisters in the car, their faces at the window. I turned and followed my cousin across the field.

When we found the Woodlanders section Eva and I walked up the wooden steps of the first platform tent. I chose the cot next to the front tent flaps and Eva took the one close to mine.

Then we heard a rough shout and a whistle. We stopped talking and looked out of the tent. It was the big lady, and she wanted everyone to sit in front of her. She stood with her hands on her hips in a brown T-shirt and dirty jeans and she did not smile. I thought of my mother’s red and white tank top.

We sat cross-legged in the dirt in front of the big lady and she told us her name was Molga.

My cousin laughed.

Molga knew who laughed and held her stare on Eva. I giggled and knew my giggle was wrong. We watched as Molga’s arm raised in the air like a tree branch as she bent down toward Eva, and before I realized what was happening she slapped my cousin’s leg. She said a story about being good and I felt badly for my cousin and scared for me so I stayed quiet.

Soon we walked in a line to the lake in our one-pieces and learned from the swim counselor that the lake had fresh water sharks. I stayed by the edge until someone made me jump in for a swim test. I looked for sharks as I swam, panicking, and wanted to go home.

At bedtime we laughed with the girls in our tent about Molga and imitated her voice and pretended we were Frankenstein. But as the silliness of lights-out turned into dark, a true dark with no access to a kitchen light, the night became a hovering presence outside our tent. Serious questions about Molga began. We tied our tent flaps together and took out flashlights. When animal screams came from the woods we leapt near each other next to Eva’s cot, the dark now owning the tent we were to sleep in and our thoughts reflected the primitive shift – “maybe she’s a woods witch.”

Eva separated a space between the tent flaps and called the name in a spooky way…

“MOL-GAHHHHH….”

We giggled, then crawled under our blankets. I hid my face underneath and held my flashlight.

The next morning I took out my toothbrush and sat on the edge of my cot. I watched Molga at the group sink. Her arm muscles looked like chopped wood. She did not brush her teeth dainty. I realized we had not seen Molga laugh or teach but maneuver around as if she lived in the woods with the screaming animals and did not know people.

“Are you going to brush your teeth?” asked Eva.

“No,” I said.

“Let’s leave now to eat,” said Eva, and walked down the tent’s steps.

“Shouldn’t we wait for Molga?”

My cousin started talking to a tentmate so I followed.

Eva led us through the woods instead of the path. We pushed back branches and crunched on dry leaves, the woods leaving small traces of itself in our hair and scratches on our skin. When we found the food building we ignored the Woodlanders and sat together in the corner. Between us was a nuance of survival, and it replaced our giggles.

A serious lady in a green blouse came over to us, hesitating. “Where’s your counselor?”

“We don’t know,” said Eva. The rest of us stayed silent and watched Eva.

Eva stood and announced she was getting food. We followed.

While we ate, I was quiet, hungry, but then a girl in our group broke the silence. Her open-faced peanut butter sandwich landed in the middle of our table and we laughed. It was funny! Then in a single movement we each grabbed the food on our plates and threw it at each other. Food went everywhere. On the table, in our hair, on the floor, and we laughed and laughed and laughed!

We were stopped as fast as we started and we couldn’t go swimming (who cared). We were given brooms and washcloths and we were to clean the mess. The adults were stern and angry, circling us like wolves as we cleaned. I was still hungry.

As we walked back to our tent, I lagged far behind. I was upset we had gotten into such big trouble. It made me want home more than ever. I hurried back to our tent and saw Eva sweeping the top step, and Molga walking over to her, slowly. I stopped. Other girls did, too.

Molga paused at the bottom of the steps and stared up at Eva. Her hands were in her jean pockets with her elbows sticking out.

Eva continued sweeping.

Molga said something. She placed one boot on the bottom step but in a single movement, Eva swept her pile straight into Molga’s face.

*

That night, in our tent, we started to get ready for bed. We now had chores amongst ourselves. I went to the rolled-up tent flaps in the back and started to untie them. Did I see rice krispees in the rolled-up flaps? As the roll unfurled a loud waterfall of black ants fell from the roll like hard rain on the tent floor. I screamed. We all screamed.

“Eva!” I screamed.

Big black ants scattered like marbles. The ants crunched under our feet. It was sickening. We pushed and swept and kicked the ants off the platform and back into the woods. We kept screaming as we worked. I don’t know how long it took.

We got rid of the ants by ourselves.

First Kiss

A group of us ran from the house and sprinted into the dusk, a silent getaway. A swell of laughter tried to overcome me but I stayed quiet, sticking with the group plan.

With the dusk so heavy, watching my feet accelerate across the golf course grass, it was then I realized I ran faster in the dark. We landed up in a circle, breathing hard. There was giggling when somebody took out an empty Dr. Pepper bottle and placed it in the middle. He did a test spin. It landed on me but he didn’t look up and didn’t follow through. Bats flittered above.

When the game officially started, I struggled with sitting properly. I wore a dress that was a hand-me-down from my cousin and it was a size too big. Its straps were loose and the blouse underneath had a collar that made me look young, like it spoke for me, and all of a sudden I didn’t like that.

When it was my turn, the kiss I gave and received came from a place of dare but the softness was so surprising, I think for him, too, that we held it longer than expected, and I decided that maybe I loved him. When the kiss was over, I sat back and felt older.

Soon the mother was calling worried through the dark, her voice traveling through the trees, and now that we were a changed group, we took our time acknowledging her. I called the boy I kissed by his first name as we ran back to the house. I stared at him instead of my fast feet. His white T-shirt carried over his frame and glowed with moon as he sprinted ahead of me, pumping his arms.

first kiss picture

Lily Dipping

It was the third week of our summer canoe trip.

Eva and I were making our way with eight 13-year-olds and two counselors, aged 16 and 17. We were living among the loons and Canadian lakes with a paper map and tents and red canoes, eating from the cans we carried on our backs during portages from lake to lake. There was no connection with an adult. Some kids didn’t change their clothes. Eva and I cleaned our Jordache jeans with Ivory against a large rock and were mocked for our diligence but our difference from the wilderness gang was never more apparent than when in the canoes.

“EEE-VAH, you’re lily-dipping!” shouted the girl with curly hair, from her canoe up ahead. The wilderness gang paddled on.

(Later that evening at bedtime, in our tent, Eva would call out into the dark night: “EEE-VAH, you’re lily-dipping!” Making us giggle and repeat it back and forth to each other. The campsite would remain silent until someone finally would shout, “Put a lid on it!”)

But right now, we were falling behind again. We were tired. Our sugar rush from the lunch chocolate was gone. The sun was round and strong and we had seen the map over the girl counselor’s shoulder that morning. We had a long ways to go before we found camp (and dinner) in the evening.

My cousin and I were quiet in our canoe, having already played “What would you eat if you were home?”

“C’mon, Eva!” I said, digging in harder.

Eva dug in.

In unison we moved us forward. Swoosh. Swoosh. Catching up was always hard.

I kept my eyes on the wilderness gang as I paddled, steering with my J-stroke so that the canoe was aiming directly at them. I watched their muscular paddling and wondered what they were laughing about. I admired their faded bandanas tied around their foreheads. My bandana was tied around my forehead, too, but the material was bright and crisp and uncomfortable, new. A costume next to their reality.

I stopped paddling and scooped lake water to drink. For a second, my drinking arm caught the edge of the shade coming from where pines leaned over the lake’s edge. I paused like a picture, keeping the cool on me, but Eva was trying hard in the front of the canoe – swoosh – so I had to keep moving, too.

The girl counselor looked over her shoulder at us and made a comment to the boy counselor in his canoe. He shrugged. They kept going.

Then we heard a motor – now that was a surprise! Eva and I shaded our eyes with our hands.

Lo and behold, it was the flannelled camp director! Now this was news!

Like Santa on retirement, with grey beard and stomach, he steered his motorboat over to our dispirited canoe. He said nothing and threw us a pile of rope.

As his twin-engine grumbled, he tied an elaborate knot onto the front of our canoe. Eva and I looked at each other gleefully.

He tested the knot with a tug, dragged his stomach back and shifted up, his engines whirling the quiet black lake. As he went forward, we watched the pile of rope disappear.

When we lurched forward in delight, we screamed a little and grabbed onto the sides, my bandana falling over my eyebrows but I held on. We came upon the wilderness gang quickly.

Now had this been a movie set, my cousin and I might’ve used this moment as an opportunity, shouting in unison: “LILY—DIP—THIS!” while shaking our oars in the air, in triumph.

But we just smiled as we passed them, the breeze blowing our hair and the tips of our machine-washed bandanas, oars comfortably on our laps.

Lake Temagami

Shake Your Booty

I knew I was forgetting something. I sat with my sisters in the back of Great Aunt Mary’s white Grenada and I was forgetting something important. I chewed on my thumb nail.

“Girls,” said Great Aunt Mary, pulling in to a spot. “I want to teach you something today.”

We got out of the car and looked up at Lyndhurst, beautiful and gray in the blue sky.

Since Great Aunt Mary was wearing her fur coat from John Charles, we knew to be serious, so we followed her in a line: Amy, Laurette, Rene, Jennifer. We each wore white Communion shoes. Mine were tight.

“We’re going in the front door,” she said, lifting the rope for us to go under. “Pay no attention to the sign.”

She breathed up the steps in her fur coat and pushed open the tall front door of the stone mansion once owned by people who made the railroad. The Hudson River twinkled white through giant windows.

“Now girls,” she said, holding the door open for us. “I want you to walk in like you own the place.”

We silently decided this room in front of us was a vestibule because our mother and father used that word at home, at 56 Lincoln. But this vestibule had no ceiling. I looked in. Oh there it is, I thought.

“Go on,” she said. “Shoulders back.”

We stepped into the tall vestibule and walked across the floor, our shoes silent against the rug. For three steps, I knew Lyndhurst was mine.

“MA’AM?”

“Keep going, girls,” she said behind us. “Do not stop.”

I wasn’t sure where I should go but I walked straight and discovered a group with a tour guide in the next room. We stopped in back of that group and took the tour with the MA’AM man following us.

When we were on the third floor, I realized what I had forgotten. I tapped Great Aunt Mary’s fur. She leaned down. The tour guide was talking about style and long skirts.

“We forgot to the make the pork chops,” I whispered.

Great Aunt Mary took in a long backward breath. “What time is it?” she asked.

I looked outside at the sun. “I think around 4 o’clock,” I said. “Maybe.”

“Let’s go,” said Great Aunt Mary.

Back in the car, Great Aunt Mary drove pressing her body into the steering wheel. When we walked in the front door, Great Aunt Mary threw her fur onto the couch and stamped into the kitchen.

“Girls, I need your help,” she said. “We have people coming over tonight.”

“The railroad people?” asked Laurette.

“No, the play people,” said Great Aunt Mary, looking worried. “The people from your parents’ play. We gotta get-a move-on so where does your mother keep the baggies now?”

We pointed to the cabinet.

Great Aunt Mary created an assembly line.

“Girls,” she said, holding up the box, “you need to get the Shake and Bake onto the pork chops and put each pork chop onto these cookie sheets while I peel the potatoes. Do you know that song Shake Your Booty?”

I helped my sisters open their boxes and we each poured the sandy mix into a baggie, some getting on the kitchen floor.

“Should we wash our hands?” I asked from the table assembly line.

“Today you don’t have to wash your hands,” she said, looking for the potato peeler through the drawer, “the oven kills the germs.”

We sang: