After ten straight hours of bingeing on chocolate eggs, what eventually hatched was a scheme. Lacking a phaeton-and-four, it was a simple plan. (The author has just finished a Jane Austen book, and is thinking of seasides, horse-drawn carriages, and misadventures that result in stays of se’ennight, ending in marriage.)
It began as a casual suggestion on the part of the eldest: “This grass is so soft,” he said, staring up at the sky in the warm light of day. “We should sleep out here.” His younger siblings were immediately on board, catching him in a whim, a bluff, a passing fancy. They started drawing up plans, fancying themselves medieval travellers, caught out-of-doors on a much longer journey. It was a scheme as dreamed up by three children, aged 11, 7, and 4, lacking finesse, but making up for it with gusto. If there were older (or of a more literary bent), I believe they might have phrased it, “What need have we of a tent, mother? We shall survive by our wits alone!” As it was, it came out, “Oh, no. We don’t need anything. We’ve got our snowsuits.”
As the evening progressed, they acknowledged (as in the tradition of great role-playing games) that it might be a good idea to have a tarp in case of rain. And perhaps a bottle of water. And maybe a lantern. But that was it. At dusk, they set off for the back of the lot with their snowsuits in hand, still wearing only pajamas. “No, no!” I cried. “You have to put the snow suits on!“ Grudgingly, they put on their appropriate clothing for the chilly (getting colder) evening. 10 minutes later, they arrived back at the door, wearing only pajamas. “No,” I said. “If you get too cold, you won’t be able to get warm again. If you are going winter camping, you have to keep warm. You can’t warm up again. Please put the snowsuits back on.” (You can see that I play the part of the mother in this drama.)
The adults set off to light a fire in the pit at the other end of the yard, near where the children have discovered a pine-cone mine.
Several minutes later, the children, drawn to the fire, arrived with pine cones in hand, wishing to see what happened when they roasted them. The fire smoked and failed to catch in the long-unused and wet pit, the children danced around the smoke, trying to add things to the smoldering pile. The father became irritated. So I took a different role in the scheme, going back to the tarp with them. “May I join you on your tarp?” I asked. I was invited into the travelling band. We took up our places, and the middle child volunteered for first watch. We lay on our backs for some time, counting satellites and shooting stars.
It is genuinely dark by this point, the clouds are parting, and the stars are plentiful above our heads. “You’re allowed to stay, if you want,” they say. “Do you want me to go?” I ask. “Um. A little bit yes, a little bit no,” says the middle child, my intrepid daughter. “No,” says the youngest. “You stay, Mummy.”
The girl has thought to bring a sleeping bag, and the youngest child becomes jealous. The oldest goes back to the house for blankets, and returns with a single light-weight polar fleece sleeping bag, into which the youngest is dutifully zipped. Laying on the ground (also in my snowsuit) I discover that a snowsuit and tarp alone will not keep the cold out of your legs. A 4-year old in a sleeping bag, however, makes a marvelous blanket. I recommend it. Eventually, though, my blanket loses his youthful enthusiasm, and starts conjuring canines hiding in the dark. “It’s too dark, Mummy. When the lights go out, you should be in the house.” It is decided. I will take him in, and bring back more blankets for the rest of the troupe. “Do you want me to come back?” The loons are making a racket on the river, the frogs are hollering at the tops of their lungs, and the mysterious howls of the neighbourhood dogs have started up. In short, the dark in our yard is starting to remind them that we live at the edge of the forest.
“I think I do,” says the oldest. “Yes,” says my intrepid daughter. “You can come back.”
I arrive back to find that they have (once again) removed their snowsuits and are wrapped up in the thin blankets over their pajamas. “Mom” comes out. “Put the snowsuit on. Do you remember the other day when you refused to wear a jacket and then you got so cold it made you cry and then you had to stand in the shower for 20 minutes to warm back up??? You can’t warm yourself back up if you get that cold! It’s dangerous!” (Why? Why is this an argument? Do kids LIKE getting hypothermia? I don’t understand, at all!) And, I fear, completely contrary to the spirit of the thing, I lay down the law. “You are not allowed to sleep outside unless you put your snowsuit back on and don’t take it off again.”
This is exactly why we don’t take our mothers along when hatching a scheme.
On the other hand, at least I provide a logical person to take first watch. After the snowsuits are (once more) grudgingly (once more) donned, we settle back down, with extra blankets. I can now report that a 4-layer tarp, plus double wool blanket, plus polar fleece wrap, plus snowpants will keep the cold out, at least when it is just below freezing. My nose is very, very cold, though. I’m a terrible night watch. I start falling asleep almost immediately, and keee pulling the blanket over my head. My eyes start to droop in a matter of minutes. “I don’t think I can take first watch. How about you,” I ask the oldest, initiator of the whole plan. “I’ll do it!” he says. A few minutes later, the daughter says, “I can’t sleep anyway. I’ll take first watch.”
A couple of minutes later, I ask, “What are we watching for?” “Oh, you know,” she says, breezily. “Coyotes. Foxes.” “What are you going to do if you see one?” “Mummy,” she says, and I can hear her hands on her hips and her rolled eyes. “We have a big stick, and we’re right next to the house. Besides, they’re more scared of us than we are of them.”
I’m not convinced, but I’m not going to let my irrational fears jeopardize a good scheme. Hypothermia from sleeping outside without proper protection? Likely. Coyote attack? Not worth the energy to conjure the thought.
It is only about four more minutes before things start to fall apart. “OK. I’m tired,” she says. “Somebody else take over the watch.” My son says maybe we should huddle for warmth. It is the beginning of the end. A few more minutes pass, me still staring straight up at the sky through the tiny gap in the blanket wrapped around my head. My son says, “I’m going in the house.” “Are you cold?” “Yes.” And he is up and gone. (Although, it turns out, to the still-blazing bonfire, not the house. Warmth and light are what he seeks.)
This leaves my daughter and I at opposite ends of the tarp, staring at the starry sky. “Are you cold?” I ask. “Not really,” she says. She pauses. “Do you want to come and snuggle with me?” I ask. “I guess so.”
So we rearrange the blankets and lie there for a few more minutes. “I think I’m ready to go in, now,” she says. “Only, could you go first?” “You want me to leave you here?” “Yes. But just for a few minutes. I want to come across the yard by myself. It might be a bit scary, but I want to try it.”
So I leave my middle child in the dark in the middle of a field… the one who is the thrill-seeker, the one that we think we’d better channel into extreme sports before she finds other things to fill that need. Right now, walking across the back yard in the dark by herself fills that need. And I go into the house. And a few minutes later, doesn’t she show up at the back door, carrying her snowsuit and sleeping bag, dressed only in pajamas? “That,” she says breathlessly, “was a little bit scary!”