WE ARE FAMILY!
We are family! I’ve got all my sisters with me. We are family. Get up everybody and sing. Everyone can see that we’re together, as we walk on by. Hey, and we fly just like birds of a feather. I won’t tell no lie. All of the people around us they say, can they be that close? Just let me state for the record, we’re giving love in a family dose. – Sister Sledge
I think it is certainly safe to say that we live in times in which the image of what constitutes a family has changed. There are many people who, for varied reasons, find themselves in the position of not having “blood” kin to share their lives with. Growing up in Ohio, Sister on the Fly, Pam Elson could not have imagined that she would ever find herself in need of family. Her parents and two brothers were a close family with cousins and aunts and uncles in nearby Kent, Ohio. They enjoyed camping vacations and first owned a pop up trailer and then graduated to a little “canned ham,” Metzendorf. Pam recalls the fun of traveling to Novia Scotia to camp and hoped to one day recreate those happy times with a family of her own.
Upper left: the family wagon with their Metzendorf trailer behind it
Upper right: Pam with her brother and dad toasting marshmallows on a family camping trip
Lower left: Pam at her campsite in the 1960s
Lower right: Pam, the future cowgirl!
In her early twenties Pam married her first love, an Ohio farmer, and set out to make a life. Let’s just say that things didn’t go as planned and she filed for divorce less than two years later. In her mid-twenties and single, Pam found a job at Fed Ex. For 17 years she was a Fed Ex driver. For another ten years she worked in the Fed Ex offices. During that time Pam was socially busy but never met “the one.” She bought a house near her family and enjoyed holidays with her parents and brothers. She has an incredible eye for design and enjoys thrifting, flea markets and furniture arranging! With or without a husband and children it was her need and desire to “nest.” She created a beautiful home near her parents and brothers and life was good.
In what seemed like the blink of an eye, over two decades went by. Realizing that the dream of a family of her own was unlikely, Pam began to think about what her future would look like. Her parents were aging. One of her brothers had moved out of state and her other brother was busy with a business and family. Vacations were a problem for Pam. Her friends were married and used their limited days off to vacation with their spouses and children. Pam tried a few vacation groups and tours but found herself traveling with people twenty years older than her and doing things that she really didn’t enjoy. Like me, she discovered the Sisters on the Fly through the April 2002 issue of Country Living magazine. She had not camped since she was a young girl, but was immediately excited about the possibilities of traveling with women her age and with similar interests. Pam joined the group and the Sisters on the Fly issued her number 68! There are now almost 6,500 Sisters on the Fly.
Her dad really wanted to help Pam find a trailer. Thirteen years ago finding a vintage trailer was a whole different process than it is today. Pam actually found an ad in a used RV magazine. The owners were in Cleveland and she and her dad set out on a sunny Saturday morning to look at it. The 1972 Shasta Lo-Flyte didn’t have the rounded canned ham shape that Pam was imagining and nostalgically recalling from her own childhood but, when she saw it, she was immediately drawn to the space in it. It was in good shape and only needed new tires and a replacement refrigerator. She bought it on the spot without even owning a vehicle to tow it with. She paid the owner to drive it the thirty minutes to her house.
The first thing she did was to make it safe. After getting new tires and having the bearings packed, Pam got in it with a bucket of soapy water and scrubbed her new “home” down. Pam knew that she wanted the interior design to express her inner cowgirl and she named her trailer “Calamity.” She and her dad worked together fixing little things while reminiscing about their own family trips. Pam’s dads’ health was failing then and she knew that these moments with him were to be treasured. When he passed away six months later she found great solace in just sitting in the trailer recalling the fun and laughs they had while getting “Calamity” road-ready. She also knew how happy her dad was that she had this outlet. I can only imagine that it gave him great peace of mind knowing that he helped her get started in something that would fill the coming gaps.
Left: Calamity’s paint job was done by an Akron, Ohio artist
Right: Pam’s trailer, Calamity, all decked out for a trailer tour
In the early days of the Sisters on the Fly, the trips that were taking place were mostly in the southwest. Pam learned of a trip to Navajo Nation, an Indian reservation that Sister on the Fly founder, Maurrie Sussman, was intimately involved with in Arizona, and she signed up. She set out with “Calamity” and traveled all the way there from Ohio. Like me, in her excitement, Pam did not read the fine print on her first trip!! When she got there she discovered that they would be “dry camping.” This means no hook-ups! Boondocking! No hair dryers! No heaters! No hot water or electric to make a cup of coffee! To say that it was not what she had imagined would be an understatement. They experienced every kind of weather. Camping on the dessert floor before they traveled to the reservation the temperatures were brutally hot. Once they got to the higher elevations on the reservation, it was snowing! By most people’s standards the trip would have been classified as a “disaster” but it really isn’t just about the location. It’s about the people and their spirit. Pam saw something in this group and did not write them off.
The dessert caravan on Pam’s first trip to the Navajo Nation Reservation
The following summer Pam signed up for a trip in Alabama. That is where we met many years ago. I “clicked” with Pam on that trip of 65 sisters in Alabama in July, and we have been friends ever since. We meet up when our calendars coordinate but keep in touch in between trips. On that trip in Alabama we both met a number of sisters from our own geographic area that we had not known. We began planning more “local” weekend trips with our Maryland and Pennsylvania sisters.
Like me, Pam has found a “family” in her sisters. I grew up in the closest knit of families with six siblings and 44 first cousins on the south side of Chicago. Family events were epic! Living in New Jersey now with my siblings all in different states and my mom in Texas, I often find myself culling the edges of my social circles at the holidays to see who is out there that might need an invitation for dinner. It once seemed so strange to me to be having Thanksgiving with a fellow “family-less” Sister on the Fly, but it is the new normal now. As a society we are transient. Job opportunities move us and those we love to faraway places. We have to decide to be a harbor for those in need of a port. I made the choice to not feel bad about not having “family” at every holiday and to instead be the “family” to those in that spot.
Pam’s mom passed away several years ago and her other brother has retired to Florida, leaving her the last family member in Ohio. Last year was her first Christmas without “family.” Her schedule at work prevented her from traveling to her brother but with her Sisters, she is not alone. The group is about so much more than camping. It is presents arriving before Christmas and birthday greetings and notes to let you know someone is thinking of you. It’s knowing that if you had to be hospitalized, a Sister will come and stay with you and feed your cat and water your plants and take care of you when you get home. It is knowing that you are not alone, even when you are sitting there by yourself on Christmas day watching old movies. Her “sisters” are her family now and she thanks God for that. Family has become those that love us and those that participate in our lives in ways that “blood” family cannot always do. They fill gaps and let us know that we are loved and valued. Pam will be retiring in three years and is considering a move to the Maryland area where a lot of her “sisters” live. Life is as good and rich as we are willing to make it. Pam’s focus is not on what she doesn’t have, it is on all that she does have. I love you Sister Pam!! Thanks for being in my life. Call me any time!!
Pam with her Maryland “sisters,” Kris Woody and Tammy Newton
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