All the Rage

My Mother Showed Me How to Hit the Jackpot

Our columnist was taught that vacations with friends are the key to a healthy adulthood. What better way to honor her mom’s memory than to go to Vegas with her three BFFs?

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My mother, Pat, loved slot machines and two-dollar show bets on horses with names she liked—the smallest possible risks, where the best possible reward was usually a few pennies above breaking even. She went to riverboat casinos and the local racetrack once or twice a year, not for the high of a big win but the momentary pleasure of an occasional non-loss. Just being there—an environment so different from everything in her daily life–was the whole point of it.

My father, to whom she was married for nearly 42 years, abhors even that much gambling, and also cannot stand any of the following: bright lights, loud noises, cocktails with more than two ingredients, degenerate young people, malls, cities, taxis, and hotels big enough to get lost in. Which is to say, if my parents had only traveled as a couple, my mother never would have seen Vegas—and never would have won $800 at a slot machine, which she immediately cashed out and exchanged for the gold bracelet I now wear, 14 years after her death.

That bracelet reminds me of several lessons I learned from my mom: 1) If you win, for the love of god, stop betting. 2) It’s possible to be more-or-less-happily married to someone for decades while utterly despising some of the things they love. 3) In keeping with (2), vacations with your girlfriends are part of a healthy adulthood.

My mom had three friends—Connie, Ann, and Mary—with whom she shared monthly lunches and an annual vacation they referred to as “C.A.M.P.”—the letters taken from each of their names. 


From left to right: Pat, Ann, Mary, Connie

Since they all lived in the Chicago area, they toured much of the Midwest, and various other U.S. locations: C.A.M.P. Brown County, Indiana; C.A.M.P. Savannah, Georgia; C.A.M.P. Las Vegas, etc. In the mid-1980s, my parents rented a summer cottage in my dad’s native Ontario, and in the late 1990s, they bought one, so C.A.M.P. trips occasionally ventured north of the border, and overlapped with our family vacations. Seeing the four of them in their bathing suits on the porch, drinking, smoking, and roaring with laughter, turned out to be quite a formative experience for me. While other girls dreamed of finding their Prince Charmings, I fantasized about finding a crew of supportive, wisecracking broads with whom I could abandon my prince for at least a few days every year.

In my twenties, I enjoyed a few trips with girlfriends, but even when we were all single and relatively unfettered, I never found a group willing to make an annual commitment. The key to making a C.A.M.P.-style tradition work isn’t money (although it helps) or love of travel (I suspect my mom found herself a couch at every location and stayed there 95 percent of the time), but a dedication to showing up. The details can’t matter more than the simple act of getting together, because you know that being together makes you all better, happier people, even if you drive each other nuts by the end of the trip.

I’d all but given up on ever finding my “C.A.M.P.” in the fall of 2012, when my friend Catriona came from Glasgow to Chicago to visit our friend Laura and me. Given the distance Catriona had already traveled, our mutual friend Jess decided to fly in from New York, so all four of us could spend a few days together. 


Kate Harding is third from the left. 

I told my husband to take a powder and hosted a slumber party, during which we ordered take-out, consumed a great deal of British candy, and watched Mean Girls. After a few glasses of wine, I was madly in love with every one of them, and ready to pop the question.

“You guys, could we do this every year?”

Another disappointment seemed both inevitable and, frankly, reasonable. You’re supposed to go away with groups of friends who live nearby, not groups that require some amount of transatlantic travel for every trip. Making this an annual tradition would be expensive, time-consuming, and a little bit batshit.

But before I could even properly gird myself to hear “No,” they’d all said yes. A moment later, we’d all agreed to alternate sides of the Atlantic each year, even though–as one of our partners is fond of pointing out–it would technically be cheaper for us all to chip in to bring Catriona over here every time.

So in 2013, we met again in London:


And last week, we all went to Vegas:


None of us won any money, but here are some things we did do together: Dined al fresco on The Strip, with a view of the Bellagio fountains. Watched The Great Gatsby from a swimming pool on the 14th floor of a hotel. Explored simulacra of the world’s great cities, enjoying the canals and frescoes of Tiny Venice, crêpes and accordion music of Tiny Paris, and the slow-moving tourists of Tiny New York

Took a bus trip to the West Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Saw a Cirque du Soleil show. (If you’ve never seen one, I don’t want to hear one word about what you think you would think if you had seen one. They are goddamned amazing, and I shall brook no disagreement.) Toured the neon boneyard.

Watched Bon Jovi concert videos on a 1,500-foot-long LED screen that hangs above a city street. Gorged ourselves on exquisite finger food during afternoon tea at the Mandarin.

Stumbled onto contemporary fine art pieces ranging from 2,000 hand-blown Chihuly blossoms to a Claes Oldenburg typewriter eraser. Went on a waterslide through a shark tank. Imitated every statue we saw, no matter how modest. 

You get the idea. We spent time together, and it was worth every bit of hassle and expense to get there, as always.

My mom was in Ontario when she had the heart attack that ended her life. My remaining family planned a funeral there in the days after, and a Chicago-based memorial service a month later, so her friends in both countries would have a chance to say farewell. 

Connie, Ann, and Mary didn’t wait for the local service. When they heard the news, the three of them got together and traveled 500 miles to see Pat one last time. They kissed her good-bye at the wake, then came back to the house and sat on her bed with me, crying and telling stories I was in no condition to remember. The part I’ll never forget is the only one that really matters: They showed up. 


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