For a while we lived in a different world than most of our friends and family. We were happy but most people doubted that. We were homeless but we were survivors. We looked at crisis as an opportunity to see what you are really made of. It was an odd existence that most misunderstood like the classmates from my daughter’s school that called them “gypsy girls” echoing the adults disapproval. The reality is that our situation could have happened to anyone that lives paycheck to paycheck struggling to stay above water then one illness, one lay off, one expensive repair and you find yourself in a whole other world.
We preserved by learning how to get by. If we didn’t have the resources to buy something we would do what we called “wing it” and that applied to everything, our poverty line existence, the almost name brand shoes, our thrift store clothes, our underwear dripping dry in the dog size bathroom, our wobble legged dining booth that converted into a bed at night and the electric heater dangling from the ceiling testament to our pioneer spirit, our baby sized sink, bare light bulb dolls kitchen, the bottom line basics-—everything rigged, second-hand, cut-off and recycled. Two single threads held the family tapestry together, love and hope.
Clothes, shoes and make-up were folded, stacked and contained so precisely that the Marine’s would have been impressed, of course they would have been impressed just by the fact that six of us lived comfortably in a 20 year old 17 foot travel trailer, for five years. My Mother taught me that what ever you do in life, do it the best you can. We shined, polished and scrubbed that old trailer until it squeaked. The pride in our hearts always outshone the reality. It was very little in the way of a home but there were many people worse off than we were and we learned from them as they passed through our lives at the campground.
There was a young couple from Georgia who came to the Gulfport area with two babies to work the oil rigs. Hurricane Bob had blown through four days after they arrived. No housing was available because what was left livable after the storm was quickly snatched up by insurance men and contractors. They spent their housing money on a large tent and a month’s worth of site rental. The rest of their savings went for a camp stove, pots and pans, diapers and a week’s worth of food. The husband picked up small storm clean up jobs but it only sustained them from week to week. They never had enough to put in their small coffee can for gas money home. They were desperate, ready to sell everything including their car for bus tickets back home. It reminded me of the helpless animals that get a limb caught in a trap and would chew it off for the privilege of freedom. Eventually they did sell everything, the car being the last to go right before we took them to the bus station.
Then there was the sweet elderly couple from Iowa who bought a brand new trailer so they could spend their retirement traveling and visiting the grandchildren. It took him five tries to back into the site pad with any semblance of being straight. He was grinning when he stepped out of the van saying “see Mama? I told you this would be easy.” She would give him a gesture that looked like she was swatting a fly and throw her head back and laugh. Every morning she would step out of the trailer looking like she just came from the beauty parlor and he would come from the shower house smelling like Listerine and Old Spice. She would invite the kids to play Rummy and he would try to snag them for a checker game. Everyone loved them. It was clear they were in love and had been for longer than most of us were old. They were planning on leaving on the weekend to start their retirement adventure, as they called it, by visiting some of their children in Texas. That Saturday morning the sweet silver haired farmer was knocking violently on our trailer door. As I opened it, his shaking hands were trying to calm his quivering lips as he said, “She’s dead, must have died in her sleep, I don’t know what to do.” I thought to myself as I hugged him, forty years of hard work, one week of retirement. The daughter that came and picked him up was the same one that called a month later to inform us that he had died of a heart attack. “I don’t understand”, my youngest daughter said, “what attacked his heart?” “Sorrow”, I said.
Rita and Billy were monthly campers like us; actually yearly campers would be more exact. Rita was a divorced Jewish woman from Columbus, Ohio and Billy was a beer drinking, bar fighting Cajun that used to make a living on the Louisiana oil rigs before his back was injured in a scuba diving accident. Rita had been married to a Pharmacists in Iowa for over twenty years and was used to the “good” life, golf clubs, social benefits, influential friends. She fell in love with Billy while visiting a friend in New Orleans. As Rita’s story goes, they were at a nightclub when a drunk starting harassing them, Billy walked over and punched the drunk out. Rita said she had never been fought over before and right then and there she felt lust for the first time in her life. He was so different from her first husband, so wild and unstable but he was passionate. Billy was like a drug that she took in increasing doses until she couldn’t live without the feeling she had when she was with him. So despite the horror of her friends and family she married him in a small fishing camp in St. Charles, Louisiana. Now five years later she still praises his attributes even though she has never seen him sober. She handled his settlement money from the oil rig accident like an accountant, saving every penny she could and taking his mental abuse when he wanted a few hundred to go on a binge with his friends. She would happily go about her day preparing delicious food and cleaning the trailer and paying the bills. She made sure she was dressed perfectly for those one or two hours he was not sleeping off a thirty pack . He was good to her when he was awake but he did not exist in a real world, only a co-dependent one. They both loved it. They had no regrets.
I learned a lot from Rita. I started to see myself in so many of her actions. Although my husband didn’t drink, the co-dependent relationship was still there. I too, had traded my independence in a moment of passion. I too, walked softly, waiting for a few moments of attention. Our lives were so different but so alike. She was my awakening, my yearning to want more for my children and myself.
There was also a couple that came down every winter for three months during the cold Michigan winter. Vern and Helen were both retired from twenty-year jobs. He had been a contractor and she a phone operator. Vern was still husky built even though he was in his seventies and Helen was energetic, always walking the half mile around the campground every morning. We had looked forward to them driving in around October every year for the past three years. This year there was something different. Vern had a hole from a Trac in his throat. He said he had cancer of the larynx and the doctor removed his voice box. He said he was trying to learn how to speak with a voice synthesizer, as he would press the long metal tube against his throat. The voice sounded just like what it came from, a synthesizer. It took awhile to understand what he was saying but soon the kids and I could understand just about everything he said. He wore red suspenders that he would snap in order to make the kids jump. He was a teaser and loved playing jokes on them. The kids loved him and so did I. His wife was the caretaker but encouraged him to be independent as much as possible. Sometimes he would get so frustrated he would throw the long metal tube to the ground, shake his head and go back in the trailer. We all knew this was a difficult adjustment so we teased him back when he was in a stronger mood and pretended we didn’t even see the hole in his throat or the synthesizer. But the reality was we did and it was a very good lesson for us all.
There was the couple that came in every Friday night in an old brown pick up with a home made camper on the back, tires bald as eggs and the driver side front fender was tied on with wire that allowed it to flap in time with the rod knocking under the hood. The man was much younger than the woman. He had dark dirty hair and his face was always unshaven, he usually wore a faded black T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and a design on the front that said Hank Williams Tour 1985, a baseball cap with a rebel flag embroidered on the front. The woman had on bib overalls with one strap missing and a cotton blouse underneath. She was thin with long hair and from behind looked to be a lot younger than her face. They stayed to themselves. They were weathered people, wind burned and weary from heading straight into life’s storms. After they parked they would make a fire and start drinking until they fell asleep on blankets on the ground. I never saw them eat anything other than tuna with saltines and cheap pork and beans straight out of the can. By Monday morning they would be gone just to return the next Friday night. They had long forgotten how to set their sails into the wind. They didn’t realize they were captains of their own ships. So, like so many people we saw there, life happened to them, they did not happen to life.
There were so many more lives that weaved in and out of our lives during those years. And, believe it or not, our life got way worse before it got better. But, through it all we never lost our sense of humor, our compassion for others or our family loyalty. Eventually we clawed our way back up and never returned to living in a RV again. We not only returned to our previous life but surpassed it by leaps and bounds.
We will never forget how easily and quickly it is to lose it all. We will also never forget that together we can survive anything. When my grandchildren ask their mothers about what their childhood was like they respond “It was great, we were Gypsy Girls!