Rain beat against the windows, thunder crashed overhead, and lightning illuminated the one-room cabin where we had taken shelter from a storm during our summer camping trip. As I lay there cozy and warm under the quilts, listening to my parents laughing and talking together across the room, I remember thinking, This must be what being in heaven feels like.
Earlier that morning while loading camping gear, fishing rods, and groceries into the car, we had noticed dark clouds over the distant blue mountains where we were going fishing. “It’ll probably clear up by the time we get to the lake,” Dad said hopefully. But about halfway up the mountain, it started to rain. The more we climbed the steep mountain roads, the more the rain increased; and there was a chill in the air, a striking contrast to the hot, dry desert town we had left two hours earlier. We pulled over and got our jackets out of the trunk while sniffing the fragrance of pine trees and meadow flowers drenched in rain.
With my two older sisters visiting relatives in California, my twelve-year-old brother, five-year-old sister, and I, then ten, shared the back seat. We stared wonderingly at our parents, who were talking happily in the front. Despite the gloomy weather, there was sunshine in the car. As we drove on in the rain, the windshield wipers beating a steady rhythm, my mother began to sing “When It’s Springtime in the Rockies” and other old favorites. She sang only when she was happy. She had never sung on a camping trip.
Feeling that for some reason this trip would be different, we all joined in—even Dad. I remember Mom and Dad sitting close to each other. Mom reached over and smoothed the back of Dad’s head and neck but then said something about his needing a haircut. I didn’t know if her touch had really been a caress.
My parents were unaware that our young eyes and hearts were riveted on them or that our happiness and sense of well-being were tied up in the strength of their relationship. I always watched anxiously for clues as to how Mom and Dad were getting along. I dreaded the loaded silences and the angry outbursts that occasionally shattered those silences.
We probably always looked like an ordinary happy family on a camping trip. But the turbulence in my parents’ marriage seemed to be intensified on these trips, ruining for me what were supposed to be enjoyable family outings.
Somehow I felt responsible for the problems in their relationship. I tried to be a peacemaker when they argued, attempting to distract them or make them laugh. It was exhausting work for a child. I thought if only we were better children—smarter, better behaved, more witty—our parents would be happy together. I had vowed to myself to make their world perfect, and I remember thinking, Oh please, Heavenly Father, don’t let my parents get divorced. In my child’s mind, the world as I knew it would cease to exist if they were to divorce, and I felt that there would never be any possibility of laughter or happiness again.
My mother was a nurse extraordinaire. She loved science and the arts, and she was creative, witty, generous, and gifted in helping people solve their problems. But sometimes she was feisty and temperamental, and her tongue could be sharp. Like Mom, Dad was highly intelligent. Though he had not completed high school and was, in many ways, unpolished, he was serious, hardworking, practical, organized, and meticulously neat. His tendency to criticize my mother always stung her tender feelings.
I realized how different they were as I grew older. Mom hated camping trips. She never called them vacations. Dad, on the other hand, loved the outdoors. Roughing it thrilled him.
On this fishing trip, for reasons I never knew, there were no angry words and no uncomfortable silences. Mom seemed to enjoy everything as much as Dad, and both seemed to enjoy each other. The wall of tension between them was down. I saw them with new eyes, feeling profoundly thankful for their smiles and laughter.
The heavy rain forced Dad to turn around and look for an untraveled road to a ghost town we had passed about twenty miles back. It was getting dark when we found the town’s prospector cabins, which were built during the silver- and gold-mining booms of the 1860s and 1870s. When we pulled up in front of one of the abandoned cabins, Dad got out and hurried through the rain to the door. We followed in a tight pack and found ourselves in a single room that looked as though it hadn’t been touched since the town was abandoned.
Cobwebs hung from every dark corner. Thick dust covered a crudely made table and an old cast-iron stove nestled against a stack of dry firewood. Across the room stood two rusted metal beds with stained, striped mattresses.
We hurried to the car in the downpour, getting soaked as we brought in our groceries and bedding. Dad lighted the lantern and built a roaring fire in the stove, dispelling the darkness. Mom helped us change into dry clothes, then began to cook dinner on the old stove—bacon and fried potatoes. She had brought along a yellow cake with chocolate frosting because it was the only dessert Dad liked.
After dinner we took flashlights and looked closely at the faded, peeling newspapers from the 1800s that covered the walls. We read news items of the day and giggled over the advertisements for knee-length swimsuits, metal bathtubs, button shoes, and sarsaparilla. As we stood around the warmth of the stove, Mom rubbed her hands together and said cheerily, “Isn’t this fun?”
As we three children settled down in a squeaky bed for the night, snuggled warmly together under heavy, well-worn camp quilts, I saw my mom making up the other bed with the clean white sheets and pillowcases she always brought along. Dad helped her tuck in the corners, teasing her about bringing the sheets, yet knowing she wouldn’t have come without them. Then he put his arms around her, and she smiled contentedly as they stood watching the cheery, snapping fire.
My heart nearly burst with happiness, and I quickly closed my eyes, pretending to be asleep so as not to interrupt a special moment between them. I remember feeling utterly content and safe in the world because my parents were happy together. It was like sailing through stormy seas into a safe, warm harbor. As I drifted off to sleep, Mom’s laughter sounded like angels singing.
It always pleased my mother whenever I told her that the night in the cabin during the storm was one of my fondest childhood memories and that my children always loved to hear about it at bedtime. I never told Mom why this memory was so precious. And I never mentioned to my parents, who divorced five years later, that I was painfully aware of their troubled marriage. Now that I have my own family, I realize how fortunate children are who can take for granted their parents’ happy marriage. The most cherished gift parents can give their children is their love for each other.
By the time I became a teenager, the deserted old cabin had seemed like a palace. In my mind the wall coverings had changed into pretty wallpaper and the banged-up kerosene lanterns had changed into chandeliers. The coarse, splintered floorboards had become richly carpeted, the roughly made table and rusted metal beds polished antiques, and the simple meal a king’s banquet.
The smell of frying bacon and the fragrance of wood smoke still take me back to that weekend forty years ago. Our camping trip had been transformed into a lifelong memory because of one simple reason: There was love at home.