By Heidi Fettig Parton
“I’m too old to camp at a festival,” I told my twenty-two year old daughter, Hannah, when she asked me to join her at the Eaux Claires music festival in Wisconsin. Besides, it wasn’t good timing. My six-year old, Josh, was recovering from his third, and most extensive, middle ear surgery. Since Josh had entered the world in 2009, I’d been declining or canceling invitations on account of his health issues, which stemmed from middle ear disease to sensory processing disorder. But here was Hannah, romantically unattached and career-focused, eager to spend time with me, the mother who’d fostered her love of music festivals.
After surviving the wreckage of my 2002 divorce, I’d decided to expose my children of that marriage, Hannah and Ethan, to experiences instead of things. We lived far differently than we had during my marriage to my ex-husband: we lived in a simple house; we read books instead of watching TV; we ate bulk legumes and rice from the food co-op. During the seven years between my first and second marriage, I spent any extra money on adventures. Hannah learned well.
I gave Hannah my youth; in return, she’d given me the entrance into a thousand new worlds, like seeing Spring Awakening and Rent on Broadway—things I’d never have done of my own initiative. In 2011, while a student at Beloit College in Wisconsin, Hannah introduced me to the Bon Iver album For Emma, Forever Ago; it didn’t leave my stereo for months. I really have to attend Eaux Claires with Han, I told myself. If I don’t, I’ll regret it forever.
I decided we could drive the four-hour round trip to the festival each day, allowing me mornings at home with Josh. On two steamy days in the middle of July, in the middle of 2015, Hannah and I attended the inaugural Eaux Claires, the festival organized by Bon Iver frontman, Justin Vernon. The festival was set on the banks where two rivers meet in Wisconsin’s Chippewa River Valley—a rolling landscape of farms, forests, and waterways. In spite of its picturesque setting, like any good festival, it had the typical festival attendees: the pierced, the tattooed, and the hippie-chic gals—with their dreadlocks and hula-hoops—gyrating along the periphery of the crowd.
I’d once been one of those pierced, hula-hooping ladies. Had it only been seven years? I marveled at how much had changed between ages 38—when I’d attended my last music festival—and 45. I had become a mother a third time and the term “hot flash” had entered my lexicon. I could no longer handle hours in the unmerciful sun.
Early on the first day, I left Hannah in front of an alt-indie band—I didn’t recognize the music—to seek out a forgiving shade. While dodging long lines of people waiting for water stations, food trucks, and the green plastic portable bathrooms, I wondered why we’d all willingly spent our money to experience the near approximation of life in a refugee camp.
Thankfully, I discovered the children’s tent, where I could sit down on a cool piece of grass and people watch. My eyes were drawn to an attractive young man in the corner. He pushed wild curly hair off his forehead as he hovered protectively over a woman, seated on one of the few available chairs. While I could see the man’s smooth tanned face and lanky torso, to which a well-worn sleeveless black T-shirt clung, I could only see the back of the woman. A low bun kept her auburn hair piled loosely at the nape of her neck and sunglasses sat atop her head. Delicate sateen straps of white crossed her shoulder blades.
I didn’t want to be a voyeur, but was fascinated by the couple’s shared task in this makeshift sanctuary. The man swatted black flies away from the woman with his yellow festival guide while, I was certain, the woman pumped her breasts with a manual pump. I recognized her stooped position and the flex and release motion of her tattooed-covered triceps. I’d done enough milk pumping in my day to respect the sacrifice this woman was making out amongst the flies, the heat, and the relentless thrumming bass.
When the woman finished, she stood and dumped her hard-earned milk on the grass floor of the tent. That’s about right, I thought. I couldn’t imagine any chunk of ice capable of preserving her milk against the day’s heat. The man then turned his back so the woman could return the breast pump to his red nylon backpack for safekeeping until her breasts once again flowed. The woman leaned in to kiss the man’s smooth bicep before grabbing his hand as they walked out into the sunshine.
For a brief time, I found myself wondering if this cooperative young couple would “make it.” No, don’t think that way. They’ve already made it. They’ve loved and created a little person to love. Now, here they were, enjoying music together. What else is there? When we love, sometimes that love lasts until death divides us (and even beyond); sometimes we move on sooner, carrying with us reclaimed pieces to upcycle into the next phase of our life.
I then saw another beautiful young woman walking purposefully toward me. With the sun behind her, it took a moment before I recognized the woman as my daughter. As she drew closer, I could see the way she squared her shoulders—with confidence—just like her father. I could see how she smiled at the way I’d draped my cotton scarf around my head—to protect my pale skin as I prepared to reemerge into the sun; that smile too was her dad’s. My chest filled with a warm fullness—something akin to gratitude—as I silently embraced the years my ex-husband and I had shared. Perhaps this was the promised “other side.”
Later that evening, I danced together with Hannah to Bon Iver’s spellbinding music. In the cool night air, I felt certain of this: to share a few such magical moments with my now-adult kids was all I really needed in life. I too had made it.
Heidi Fettig Parton is a writer and mother who embraces career variety; she’s been a lawyer, a legal publisher, and a yoga instructor. Currently, she’s a candidate for an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University. Heidi’s written for Assay Journal, Angels Flight, literary west (AFLW), Grown and Flown, and others. This spring, she’s interning at Agate magazine. You can find more of her writing and updates on her memoir-in-progress at: HeidiFettigParton dot com.