Camp Love - by Catherine Cuellar
This oil painting is likely from the 1970s was discovered in the now-defunct Found antique mall near the Design District. It intrigued me from the start. are the subjects lovers, siblings, members of a folk duo...?
Thankfully Catherine Cuellar, arts advocate, writer and do-gooder, knew the answer. You can find more of her work, along with that of other talented local writers, in Dallas Noir, a collection of short stories featuring the dark side of Big D.
"As summer camp drew to a close and Jackie reciprocated the love Scott professed, they confirmed what he both dreamed about and most feared — that she was his sister.
Scott grew up an only child. After his parents divorced, his mom worked two jobs so he could attend Christ the King and Jesuit. But Martha confided in her son, swearing Scott to secrecy. Before Scott's father James married her, they had given up a daughter for adoption. It was critical to Martha that Scott believe she was a virgin when his dad first knocked her up, and she candidly emphasized that he must take every precaution because — as she always said — "If you are anything like him, you can make a baby every time you take off your pants."
Scott was acutely aware of the shame and guilt Martha felt every day since giving her first born daughter away. In Martha's youth, good girls didn't get in those situations — so she went away. James was at Martha's side when Jackie arrived, although neither of them ever held her. They stayed together, got married, then officially consummated their relationship, and soon after, Scott came along. But Martha and James's love for Scott wasn't enough to make them forget — and if Jackie hadn't been born, they knew they probably wouldn't have wed in the first place.
They divorced, making Scott feel like a mistake even though Martha reminded him often that he was the one they wanted, the one she and James planned and chose to have, and the one she was so ecstatic to hold and keep. Scott couldn't ask Martha about Jackie, but when he got to Jesuit, Martha reminded him that his sister was out in the world somewhere, and — in addition to never getting a girl pregnant — he must avoid dating a family member and exposing Martha to ridicule and humiliation she had feared since her own school days.
After graduating cum laude, Scott spent the summer between high school and college lifeguarding. He had a fling with another student working at the pool who he might have tutored if he had gone to public school, and she was definitely not his sister.
Scott earned a swim scholarship and work/study grant as a lifeguard at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He flew up and met his roommate, Ira from Syracuse, for the first time during orientation. Dorm life was so different — both from the apartment where for years Scott had been his mother's only male companion, and from the homes and families of his lifelong classmates from Jesuit. He soon forgot his summer fling and befriended a student named Linda from Hamilton's sister school Kirkland. Linda was trying to make it work with her high school sweetheart Trey — even though she and Scott visited far more often and longer than she and Trey could afford to since long-distance calls were so expensive and postal correspondence so slow. As romantic feelings stirred between them, Scott asked Linda if she were adopted and then, breaking Martha's confidence, he explained why. Soon after, Linda broke up with Trey.
Semester break holidays with Martha were hard for Scott. College had allowed him so much freedom and opened his mind to so many new ideas, he knew it would be hard to go home to Dallas and share Martha's apartment for the entire summer, especially since Martha had started using Scott's empty bedroom as an art studio for painting when she wasn’t working three jobs for the room and board, book money and travel his scholarship didn’t cover. When Linda announced her plans to work as a summer camp counselor in the Catskills, Scott asked if they were still hiring. Though all the counselor positions were filled by former campers, through Linda’s connections, he finagled a job as a lifeguard. And it was there, as he played acoustic guitar one night during a fireside singalong, that another voice joined in their chorus — Linda’s friend and fellow counselor Jackie. She was instantly able to harmonize with Scott, and they sounded great together.
Over the next few days, Jackie started chatting Scott up when he was on break during open swim, then he started joining her and the campers from her cabin for meals in the mess hall a couple of times. She was smart but also really funny in a quiet, dry way that was so subtle he sometimes didn't realize she was joking — and, mercifully, her campers didn’t notice if she was mocking them. Jackie had a solemnity Scott appreciated, so he loaned her one of his favorite books — Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey — which she adored. Weeks passed, and as Scott’s time spent with Jackie increased, Linda asked, "Have you asked if she's adopted?"
Linda probably knew. She and Jackie had grown up spending their summers together at the same camp. Initially Scott dismissed Linda as jealous because he was spending less time with her. Then he realized Jackie was the right age, about Martha’s height and body proportions, and her eyes and nose resembled his father James.
He thought about how many questions of nature versus nurture their uncommon bond could answer. Jackie was from Long Island and made fun of Scott's Texas accent. Her parents were still married, and she had siblings. Considering how distinct their backgrounds were, it was astonishing how quickly and easily they clicked.
"Does she know?" Scott asked.
"That she's adopted?” Linda answered, “Yes. But not that you have a sister."
Scott wrote his father James, fearful that it would pain Martha too much. The following week, James wrote back with answers about Jackie's birthday, hospital and adoption agency. He also wrote a sealed letter for Jackie that Scott was to give her only if they determined she was indeed their relation. Scott feared broaching the subject. Linda convinced him that, before they parted company, Jackie would want to know.
After another fireside singalong, as campers started returning to their cabins, Scott asked Jackie to hang back as he put his guitar in its case, which held James’ letter. Scott began by confessing how he had grown to love Jackie, then apologized because he might be about to offend her. Jackie comforted him, saying she loved him too — but out of loyalty to Linda, only as a friend.
"What about as a brother?" Scott asked.
Jackie was bewildered, assuming for a moment that Scott was joking about wanting to be adopted by her family. She played along, "but what will your mom say?"
"Our mother," Scott said.
He shared Martha and James’ story, and as Jackie put the pieces together, it all made sense. "My parents are my parents," she said. "I never wanted to meet my birth parents for fear I'd hurt their feelings."
They both left camp, planning to keep in touch. And after Scott got back to Hamilton that fall, Jackie wrote asking if he would like to join her family on Long Island for Thanksgiving.
Knowing it would be hard for Martha to spend another holiday without him after he'd been gone almost a year, he called from the shared pay phone in his dorm one Sunday and told her everything. She wept, and wished him well. Martha mailed a package for Scott to hand-deliver, and asked Jackie if Scott could send a photograph of them together — which Jackie's dad took after their Thanksgiving meal. Jackie's parents were loaded, and with her siblings they embraced Scott as one of their own. It made him feel both wonderfully welcome and terribly sad that he and Martha had such a tough time of it, comparatively speaking. Yet the life his sister had enjoyed was the best thing his parents could have given her.
As graduation approached, Jackie told Scott she would like to attend his baccalaureate — knowing Martha and James would be there. It was one of the most stressful days of of Scott's life, not only because he was about to finish college and still hadn’t found a job, but especially since he hadn't seen his parents together in almost 20 years.
Jackie met James first, and James gave Jackie the wedding band from his marriage to Martha. After many tears were shed and hugs exchanged, they got to do it all over again with Martha. Martha had also brought a gift for her daughter — a portrait of Jackie and Scott that she had painted from the photograph Jackie's dad had taken a few years earlier at Thanksgiving."