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In their camper, Anita and Paul hit the road


Anita lived for 37 years in an elegant brick-and-stone house surrounded by huge oak trees, banks of yellow daylilies and dogwoods as delicate as a Japanese watercolor. There was a big screened-in porch in back, and in the distance, a swimming pool. She’d just refinished the basement and laid white Berber carpet when they decided to sell.

At first, her husband thought she was crazy. She’d gone to bed exhausted after babysitting the grandchildren for two weeks. When Paul carried in a tray, she sat up and announced, “Honey, I want to sell the house.”

“You’re not feeling well,” he said tenderly, “and, besides, it’s a full moon.”

Paul had nursed his first wife through cancer; Anita had watched her first husband drown when their boat capsized under a dam. Both had brought separate memories to their marriage. But for nine years, they’d been living in Anita’s memories.

“I wanted to see what was in front of us,” she said quietly, “instead of what was behind me.”

They started cleaning out closets, giving stuff away. Anita went from 12 feet of built-in closets and a matching lingerie chest to a single narrow closet stuffed with jeans. She kept four place settings of sterling, figuring she could use it with paper plates, and a velvet pantsuit for parties.

Then they bought a camper.

Anita had never camped in her life; she preferred her Mercedes convertible and soft beds at the Ritz. But she’d seen Paul’s face years before when they rented a trailer and puttered around southern Missouri in late, golden September. Cheeks pink, eyes clear blue, he’d looked 10 years younger.

She wrote letters to her dead loved ones -- her first husband and their son -- and burned them in the fireplace. She and Paul were waving lit sage through the house -- a purification ritual borrowed from the native Americans -- when the realtor called. “Don’t do it,” the woman yelped. “It’ll smell like pot!”

Anita and Paul just laughed; their proper suburban lives were melting fast. They hired someone to hold an estate sale and overheard a customer saying, “This is such a nice house, what happened? Did the people die?”

“Oh no,” said the dealer, “they’re out back in the trailer.”

Their camper, now their home, is huge and glittery, its black, ivory and beige interior is full of mirrors and soft light. There’s a still life of cacti on the sink counter in lieu of landscaped grounds; there’s a tiny plug-in fountain for serenity. It’s beautiful and comfortable and it makes my palms sweat.

I get upset when friends move. I get upset when annoying neighbors move. When my husband reminds me that we too may have to move someday, my heart races. I used to marvel at the disciples leaving their jobs and families, heading off with Jesus for God-knew-where. Couldn’t they have commuted?

I looked around again and gulped. Paul and Anita aren’t exactly out of touch, I reminded myself. They carried a cell phone, a computer and satellite dish. I watched with horrified fascination as Paul slid open a drawer of bikes, scuba and ski gear beneath the camper’s floor. OK, it’s spatially ingenious. But to put your entire home on wheels? To live no place in particular?

“We have a post-office box in Texas,” Anita assured me. “The kids keep asking, ‘Where are you now? When are you two going to settle down?’ But we’ve been settled.”

Now their lives are fluid. They might take classes someplace, or try a new craft, or decide to stay the summer. They make themselves at home emotionally and intellectually wherever they are. It’s an acquired talent: Paul said that at first, they raced everywhere and wore themselves out. “You’re thinking you only have a two-week vacation and you have to see it all. After about a year it dawns on you: You have time.”

The thought soothed my rapid heartbeat. I even started to feel a little envious.

Then it hit all over again.

They don’t have a home. On ground, with a yard. They don’t have neighbors. Where do they get any sense of community, or family or rootedness? I wondered.

Anita laughed. “We’ve met people from all over the world; it’s surprising how often you run into them again. We’ve met everyone from corporate CEOs to janitors; you’ll find a guy with a million-dollar coach parked next to a ratty old trailer, and they’re sitting in front having a beer together.” She said they see their far-flung friends and family more than they would have; they go visit. They also have adventures: winding crazily through the narrow streets of Newport, R.I.; dancing in a Cajun restaurant in Lafayette, La.; hiking in Acadia National Park in Maine.

“You learn to trust people’s advice,” said Anita. “A waitress steered us to Bar Harbor, [Maine], even though we’d been heading in the opposite direction. And in the trailer parks, if someone is working on something, everybody in the world has to stop and put in their two cents’ worth.”

She stopped, cocked her head. “I like myself better now. When we lived in our own little cubicle, I did a lot of judging. Doing this has made me more accepting, more loving. Because we’re all in this together.”

Her 91-year-old aunt feels just the opposite. “She’s been living in a nursing home for years, but she doesn’t want to get rid of her stuff,” said Anita, shaking her head ruefully. “She’s holding on to yesterday, and yesterday’s all gone.

“I know why it’s hard, letting go,” she added, her bubbling enthusiasm stilling for a second and revealing the bedrock beneath it. “We fear the unknown. There are no guarantees.”

Brick and stone don’t make guarantees either.

They just create the illusion of permanence.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@riverfronttimes.com

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002