Patterns exist in
every childhood. Eating warm oatmeal for breakfast. Going to church at 9
a.m. on Sundays. Catching the bus after school.
Well, I rarely ate anything as healthy as oatmeal, only went to church on
Easter and Christmas, and rode the bus just once, to see where it went. But
the one pattern that stands out most in my years of growing up in the South
is this: for about 10 years, every other Sunday, my two sisters and I piled
into the back of my father's 1979 green Ford truck with the camper on the
back, sat on cattle feed sacks so hard we could feel every cube inside, and
sang Tammy Wynette songs until my parents had driven the 20 or so miles to
our bi-weekly destination.
My parents owned a camphouse on the banks of the Guadalupe River in South
Texas. The cabin sat high on a grassy hill, just a stone's throw from the
river, and looked like it was put together with wood glue and a roll of
Early on, my father had tiled the concrete floors with free, leftover
linoleum squares from the lumberyard, so each one was a different pattern.
Rusting iron beds lined the front room like an army's hospital ward, the
mattresses thin as slices of Wonder bread and holding fast to the mildew
that only river air can provide. The bathroom's toilet and sink showed only
hints of ever being white; the well water's sulfur had painted them brown
and yellow and red, making them look like something fit for a horror movie.
The kitchen was an old school bus, attached to the back of the camphouse by
a welder’s hand. The kitchen-bus ran the length of the back of the house,
the floors slanted down so much you could lose your balance bending down to
pick up a dropped potato chip.
Our first chores when we arrived on Sunday mornings were the following: open
the wood shutters that covered the screened windows in the front and back,
securing them with baling wire. Check the bathroom and kitchen for water
moccasins. Help Mom unload the brown grocery bags and stay out of Daddy's
way as he lit the barbecue pit.
After that, we were free.
Unlike at home, where my mother kept a tight handle on cleanliness, we could
come and go as we pleased, river mud and all.
We could eat greasy burgers on buttery Texas Toast.
When a rain shower would develop, we could spend time inside, jumping from
one iron bed to the next---a highly developed form of chase.
We could play on the tires that hung from century-old pecan trees as swings,
and land on our knees, not worrying a bit about the grass stains.
We could build mud castles next to the swift currents of the Guadalupe and
walk around all day with streaks of dried, clay-like dirt on our feet, arms
We could dangle from a thick, rough rope tied to a sturdy oak branch and let
ourselves fly like birds out over the river, then fall from the sky with our
stomachs in our throats, into the deep water, then float on our backs, feet
first, down to the boat dock.
And we could run back to the camphouse, hair dripping wet, swimsuits filled
with river silt, and walk straight into the kitchen to grab a cold Dr.
Pepper, leaving footprints while hopping from a green paisley tile to one
with sunbursts of orange.
Something about those days on the river has stayed with me through the
years, as have the raised white scars on my knees---from landing on rocks in
the river or cracked pecan shells near the tire swing.
I was at my best then, I think, when there were few rules and even fewer
moments of doubt. I, along with my sisters, didn't just live out the hours
on those Sundays, we attacked them, like something fleeting. Like chasing
dragonflies in waist-high weeds.
Risks seemed inevitable, even expected. We were wild. We were tomboys. We
were fearless. We were laughter and dirty cheeks and sunburned noses.
We were our truest selves.
Kathy Lynn Harris
works for a public library and lives near the southernmost glacier in North
America, at 10,000 ft., along the Continental Divide in Colorado. Prior to
her move to the Rockies, she grew up and made her home in South and East
Texas. She has completed two novels and published magazine articles, poetry,
short fiction and essays. Contact her at
Check out her Web site