Ketchup and Convertibles

My stepdaughters insisted on camping with ketchup, Pepsi and showers. I'd rather be opening a bottle of white wine with the women in the red Mustang convertible.

By Karen Ackland
Published August 10, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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My husband, two stepdaughters and I are on our way to the camp store to buy ketchup. I think this is unnecessary, but in the interest of harmony I'm coming along.

After Alexis and Jennie examined the ice chest this morning and learned that I planned to barbecue pork chops for dinner, they told me that I needed ketchup. I suggested that these pork chops, currently marinating in homemade teriyaki sauce, didn't need ketchup. The girls informed me that they always have ketchup with pork chops. They can't eat pork chops without ketchup. Besides, I didn't bring enough Pepsi.

This is our second annual Fourth of July camping trip. Last year, when we were getting to know each other, the girls had suggested camping, to the surprise of their father. They are suburban kids, used to malls and fast food, but they assured him that they love camping. I suspect that they considered their father and me too inept to manage a relationship without their help and thought sleeping together in a tent would move things along. On the first trip the girls refused to go on any hikes, but they liked cooking outdoors and were good, if exhausting, companions. Building on the success of that first weekend, we're trying again. This year, though, their father is safely married -- to me -- and they're a year closer to becoming teenagers.

I sit in the front passenger seat, pointing out the sights. "Look at the lupine. Look at the glacier. Look at the volcanic area. Maybe we'll come back here tomorrow." My husband occasionally glances in the direction I am pointing, but the two in the back are hooked up to their respective Walkmans. The only sound I hear is a faint clicking as they play the same section of a song over and over again. I'm not sure why this should bother me, but I wish they'd play the thing all the way through. I feel foolish, like a tour guide on an empty bus. I am momentarily encouraged when Alexis looks up, until she says loudly, as if she'd suddenly gone deaf, "I'm not going up there."

"On your life," Jennie chimes in.


At the small camp store they spring into action. In addition to ketchup they suddenly need Hershey's chocolate milk, vanilla wafers, a giant jar of cheese dip and tortilla chips. I feel powerless to curtail this flood of junk food and buy myself a box of licorice whips.

I dole out quarters and we stand in line for the public showers located behind the store. When we arrived last night, the first thing the girls did was check out the restrooms. When they couldn't find a shower, they wanted to pack up right then and leave. This morning I had to stop them from hailing the ranger as he drove through the camp. They had some remodeling suggestions for him -- add showers. "We're camping," I told them cheerfully. "We get to go without showers and makeup." The look I got made me feel like I was the teenager and had just done some incredibly stupid thing that would prevent me from ever being popular.

Back at camp, Larry and I bring from the car the ice chest and four plastic crates that contain the cooking supplies. In the next campsite, two young women have driven up in a red Mustang convertible, set up a backpacking tent and they're now grilling what looks to be tuna steaks. There are two stemmed glasses on their table and a bottle of white wine. On my table there is a two-liter bottle of Pepsi, chips and salsa, chocolate chip cookies, a can of bug spray, a quart of cream rinse and a pile of damp towels. I'm feeling decidedly matronly -- it's not attractive.

I'm afraid my staring will be misinterpreted, so I say hello to the two women the next time I make a trip to the car. They tell me they plan to hike to the top of Lassen Peak the next day. I know it'll be a struggle to coax my group onto the paved walk to the Sulfur Works without them threatening to puke from the smell and locking themselves in the car.

I want to explain to the women that I used to be like them. I want them to know that these are my husband's children, that I don't like Pepsi and that, in other circumstances, I'd hike Lassen Peak myself. I want them to know that I know better.

When I was a young, single woman, I used to camp with my friend Julie. We called our excursions camping/shopping trips since we'd often stop at the outlet mall for Joan and David shoes or a Ralph Lauren skirt before reaching camp. We'd take a long hike, make dinner and sit down to read. Julie laughed at my jokes, talked to me while we drove and never expected ketchup.

Although the girls may not admit it, we are having a good time. They figured out that I'm easy to startle and have spent much of the last two days hiding in toilet stalls or behind the tent fly, jumping out suddenly to say, "Boo!" I scream; they laugh and run to tell their father. I cajoled Jennie into taking a hike with me yesterday afternoon. We ended up in a beautiful glacial meadow with enough of a snow patch to build a miniature snowman. She assured me when we got back to camp that she hadn't enjoyed a single minute of it, but I recognized that for the negotiating ploy that it was.

I thought this trip would be a good way for my husband to spend time with his daughters. I hadn't anticipated how it would affect me. Earlier in the weekend I'd been secretly pleased by how I'd taken on my new role as the mother in this family of four. Becoming even a part-time mother at the age of 45 is an unsought gift. So why do I suddenly feel the need to differentiate myself from my family?

I have more experience entertaining myself in a foreign city than amusing two kids in a national park. I've ordered dinner in a different language with more assurance, certainly with more culinary success, than I did on the night we stopped at Wendy's on our way here. Everyone, including my husband, knew exactly what combo meal they wanted by the time they reached the counter and then made simultaneous and contrary suggestions as I frantically tried to read the overhead menu. This summer, by staying closer to home, I find my world expanding in ways I would not have predicted.

I'm having a hard time with my identity. With or without Alexis and Jennie, I'd look the same. But with two kids beside me, I'm a mom handing out junk food. Without them, I'm an active woman with a career in marketing.

We all seem to need to declare ourselves. My stepdaughters want me to know that they are not the kind of people who willingly go hiking, eat pork chops without ketchup or go without showering. They have an easier time defining themselves than I do.

"I used to be like you," I want the young women in the red Mustang to know. "And now I have kids."

Karen Ackland

Karen Ackland is a freelance writer and marketing consultant in Santa Cruz, Calif.

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