When I was 11 years old my parents sold our family caravan so that we could move to a nicer part of town. To save for the deposit on the house they needed to cut down on all but the essential of expenses. Holidays at Orere Point weren’t included in the budget. We’d camped there every summer and Easter and Labour weekend since I was born, but to get where you needed to go in life sacrifices were needed. This is what my Mum said as she cleared out the kitchen cupboards and stacked boxes. The sunny yellow caravan that we’d once decked out in tinsel was sold on-site at the holiday park. I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.
There’s a stubbornness about childhood memories that cause them to linger. Forgetting would be kinder. I remember all the things. The chill of the water as I swung from the rope into the swimming hole. Santa arriving at the camping ground on Christmas Eve on a tractor, flinging handfuls of Macintosh lollies over his shoulder as we ran after him. I remember the sunshine and trees and endless twilights. Movies on the big screen in the open air, Mr Muscle competitions and talent quests. I remember walking out on to the stage in a pair of red togs, scabby knees and no front teeth, singing all I want for Christmas.
I remember Dad coming home with a boat full of Snapper and Mum sipping on Brown Cows and Fluffy Ducks with Merle from next door, flushed cheeks both of them.
Twenty cent pieces for the showers and a pocket full of treasure. I remember Mum wrapping me in a towel when I came up from the river, kissing my wet neck as I shivered.
In both conscious and unconscious ways, I think I have spent the best part of my adult life trying to recreate this lost childhood. The childhood before the confusion and rage and turmoil of adolescence set in. Before the drugs and the alcohol and the accusations and car-crashes and deserted hallways.
Decades later, when I had a family of my own, we bought a house bus to go on camping holidays. Each summer we settled into a rhythm and as the weeks passed I was struck by a sensation that I was finally putting things in the right order. I was defying the laws of time, tracing my steps back to the tinsel-covered yellow caravan, still waiting for me under the trees at Orere Point.
The years that followed were brighter because of that red house bus. Our kids grew up in it. We collected shells on beaches from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South. One year we did the West Coast. Another year we parked beside a frozen lake and went skiing. I used to organise annual family talent quests, once doing a rendition of heads-shoulders-knees-and-toes in five languages. I lost out to my gappy-toothed daughter who’d learnt that year how to do cartwheels.
My favourite spots were camping grounds soaked in sunshine and ringed by trees. I could close my eyes and feel time folding back on itself. The kids would return from the beach or swimming hole, buckets and boards in hand, and I would wrap them up in a towel, place my lips against their shivering skin and breathe life back into my own childhood.
My girl cried when I told her the bus would have to be sold. Not a slow gathering of tears but a physical outpouring of anguish. I was surprised by the force of it. Surely she must have known it was coming? She’s 11. She’s old enough to understand that I can’t drive the bus or maintain it, and that some things cannot be split in two.
But the fact that loss is inevitable does not make it any less painful. I should know that better than anyone.
I reached out to her and gathered her into my arms. Her shoulders shook. To be crushed by longing for something you have no choice but to let go of is an injustice. I wanted to make it right but I knew that I couldn’t. I had spent my whole life trying to make it right and failed. I didn’t want her to do the same. But even then, I knew, if given half the chance, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
I tilted her tear-stricken face to mine. I wanted to tell her not to worry. I wanted to tell her that forgetting might be kind but remembering is bittersweet. I wanted to say: “Childhood memories are stubborn and they will linger. You will remember all the things. Somewhere there is a bus, and it’s parked beside a yellow caravan decked out in tinsel and encircled by trees, and one day you will go there again.”
Instead, I wiped her tears and said “shall we have a talent quest tonight?”