For the first time since Mama died, Tatia found a place where she was truly wanted.
For the past few weeks I have been sharing sample chapters of Tatia’s Tattoo. Links to previous chapters are at the end of this post. Following is Chapter 6. Chapter 7 will be posted on Sunday.
CHAPTER 6: THE WHIRLWIND OF CAMP ACTIVITIES
“Would you like something to drink?” asked the flight attendant.
Tatia sighed, realizing she had been staring at the page dealing with signs of neglect and abuse since takeoff. She closed the notebook, slipped it into the small space between her hip and the armrest, and lowered her tray table. “Yes, I’ll have orange juice and a glass of water, please.” She would have liked another cup of coffee, but she couldn’t handle the instant decaf the airlines served. Her seat mate asked for black coffee, and the flight attendant turned back to her cart to fill their requests after handing them each a napkin and a bag of pretzels.
While she sipped her juice, Tatia thought about all the camps she had attended – the first one as a camper and ten more as a staff volunteer. The preparation for the last nine, when she had reviewed the study material on her own, had all been the same. She tried to re-read the text, and every year she became lost in the memory of those early years. She pulled out the notebook again, careful not to knock over either of her glasses, and opened it to the section called “Been There, Done That.” She read through it quickly, reminding herself that her own experiences could be an asset as long as she used them to help her understand her campers, focusing on the uniqueness of each child and not projecting her story onto any of them. Then, she slid the notebook that she could quote by rote into the seat pocket in front of her and settled back to remember.
After Jesse and Kaley disappeared, Tatia looked around and realized all her other siblings were gone, too, so she resumed her trek toward the front of the bus. As soon as her feet touched the ground, an older woman who must have been one of the grandmothers offered her a wide smile and held out her hand and said, “Hi, welcome to camp! I’m Ellie.”
Tatia responded with a tentative smile and took her hand. Ellie gently covered Tatia’s hand with her other one and gazed into her eyes with a look that said it’s okay, you’re safe here. With her mouth, she said, “What’s your name, honey?”
Tatia responded first to the look, and she felt some of the tension leave her tight shoulders. “Tatia,” she said, responding to the question.
“Okay, Tatia,” said Ellie, tucking her hand protectively into the crook of her elbow, “let’s go find your counselor.”
They didn’t have far to go. As they rounded the front of the bus, they almost collided with a short, middle-aged woman wearing a lop-sided smile and a wide-brimmed straw hat. She was holding up a neon yellow sign with TATIA spelled out in hot pink bubble letters.
Ellie looked at Tatia and grinned. “Looks like we found her.”
The woman smiled even wider. “Tatia?” she asked.
Tatia nodded shyly.
The woman gave her a warm, camp-regulation side hug and said, “Hi! I’m Betty, your counselor for the week. I’m so excited to finally meet you. And this is Michelle.” She indicated a girl about Tatia’s age but slightly taller and heavier. She had a mass of braids, caught up on top of her head and cascading down one side. She had a sweet smile and one perfect dimple. “The three of us are going to be a team this week, and we’re going to have lots of fun.”
Michelle and Tatia said a timid “Hi” to each other while Betty struggled with the three lanyards that were twisted around her neck. “Here,” she said, holding out the welcome signs to the girls. “Hang on to these while I get your name tags untangled.” When she finally straightened out the mess and put the name tag around Tatia’s neck, it was much more than a cord and a little piece of plastic. It was a promise that, at least for the next few days, somebody knew who she was and that somebody cared.
The first thing on the agenda was lunch, followed by rest time. Nobody really rested though; there was way too much to see and do. The counselors helped their campers dig through the piles of luggage to find the suitcases, backpacks, or plastic bags that contained the clothes and other personal belongings they had brought from home. Tatia and Michelle had no problems locating their bags, and Betty was soon herding them toward the dorm they would call home for the week. A steady stream of humanity funneled into the main doorway before splitting, boys and men to the hallway on the right, girls and women to the left. The stream continued to diminish as people found their rooms. Betty and her girls continued all the way to the last door on the left. Then, they stopped as they were confronted once again with the preparation that had been made for their arrival.
The door to the room was covered with names – lots of names – and Tatia wondered just how big that room was. First, though, she scanned the door until she found her own name. She reached out and traced the letters with her finger as if to make certain that somebody really had been expecting her.
“Hey, what’s the holdup!” someone shouted from further back in the hallway.
“Come on, girls,” said Betty. “Let’s get on into the room so we can get settled and get ready to go swimming.”
“Swimming! Yeah!” said both girls as they pushed the door open. They almost stopped short again, but Betty urged them to keep moving.
“We’re all the way in the far corner,” she said.
The room was small and ugly – no more than twenty feet by thirty feet with a concrete floor, cinder block walls, and a ceiling covered with insulation held in place by chicken wire. It was furnished with nine sets of bunk beds lined up against both walls with barely a foot of clearance between beds. A narrow aisle, approximately four feet wide, ran down the center of the room. Still, it had been transformed into a wonderland by counselors armed with strings of lights, crepe paper streamers, balloons, posters, and signs. The girls gaped at all the decorations, almost stumbling over campers who had arrived before them and were already trying to find places to stow their belongings.
Tatia squealed with delight when she reached the end of the room and saw the small sign on the last bunk – TATIA’S BED. “I’ve never slept in a bunk bed before, and I get the top one!”
Michelle seemed a bit disappointed that she had a lower bunk, but she took it in stride. “I had the top bunk last year. Just be sure you don’t step on me if you have to get up and go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.”
Both girls giggled, and Betty hoped their good start would continue throughout the week. She set to work helping the girls find places for their bags and checking to see if they had swimsuits, flip flops, and towels for their trip to the pool. She discovered that Tatia needed a T-shirt to wear over her swimsuit since her two-piece suit didn’t meet the camp dress code. Both girls needed sheets, and Betty thought they might need socks later in the week, but she’d worry about that later. The first priority right now was to get the girls to the pool for the swim test.
There were two choices for swimming – the pool and the pond. Non-swimmers and the more timid kids stayed in the pool that was about five feet at the deep end. This was a great place for volleyball games, floating toys, and water gun fights. The swimmers and more adventurous went to the pond, a deeper and more natural body of water with a big slide, a trapeze, and a zip line. Both girls passed the test and were awarded a red wrist band which gave them access to the pond and the pool, with an accompanying counselor, of course. They spent forty-five minutes in the pond, squealing, splashing, sliding, and having the kind of carefree fun that was too often lacking from their lives.
Lights out was at nine o’clock. By the time Tatia donned her pajamas, brushed her teeth and climbed into her bunk, she had made a pillowcase and a bookmark using a real sewing machine, learned several new songs and watched a funny skit in Chapel, eaten dinner and played games with new friends, picked up a handful of notes from her counselor and camp grandparents from her personal camp mailbox, and had a devotional and bedtime prayers with her counselor. As she snuggled down in the sleeping bag Betty had brought her from the camp store, her head was spinning with new memories. She played each one through her mind like a video, trying to decide which was her favorite, and she finally settled on the song they sang in Chapel called “Big House.” It was exactly what she pictured when she thought about her Mama and Daddy being in their Father’s house. She lay in the darkness, listening to the sounds of the other girls settling down for the night, and drifted off to sleep singing to herself:
Come and go with me to my Father’s house. It’s a big, big house with lots and lots of room; a big, big table with lots and lots of food; a big, big yard where we can play football; a big, big house. It’s my Father’s house.
She was so exhausted each night from the blur of activity that she had the nightmare about Mama and Daddy in their boxes only once. Even the morning after waking up in tears in the middle of the night, she was excited to see what the day held. Throughout the week, she built a keepsake box with a real hammer, she had her first root beer float ever, and she played on a huge homemade Slip-and-Slide. She attended a royal princess tea party dressed in a beautiful ball gown, and at the camp variety show she performed a rap recitation of the books of the Bible with the other girls from her cabin. Her two favorite activities, though, were Imagination Station where she met Mrs. G and Everybody’s Birthday Party where she really met Jesse.
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