DONNA — There she was, clear as a bell, on the TV screen. Diapers on her bottom, a spoon in her hand and, most likely, a smile on her face. She was helping her daddy dig out the basement of their new home and she was proud to be part of the plan.
“They lowered me in a bucket since I couldn’t climb down the ladder,” said Cheryl Matthews, laughing as she remembered the 8 mm movies she had seen. “My dad would take wheelbarrows full of dirt out to the woods beside our home and dump them, making big piles throughout the woods. The dog and I would ride out on top of the dirt and then back home again in an empty wheelbarrow.”
Years later these piles would make obstacle courses for her brother and his friends to race their bikes over.
“I would want to go and play with them,” she said. “My brother would let me follow him, but then I would get lost and cry and cry before he finally came back and got me.”
Though born and raised in the Detroit area, it was the time at her grandparents’s she cherished.
“My step-grandfather and grandmother had 40 acres near Port Huron, Mich. My grandfather was a big hunter and always would take my brother hunting. So, my brother would take me frogging. We’d go and get the frogs and then I remember my grandmother ripping them open and throwing them in the frying pan. I never could eat frog legs, I always liked frogs. But, I could do rabbit and squirrel.”
Her step-grandfather was quite literal when he was teaching the two children a lesson.
“There was a path which took you back into the back 40,” said Cheryl. Along the path my grandfather had two boots sticking out of the ground and a little cross which read, ‘Here lies the only man that littered on this property.’”
It worked. Cheryl and her brother surely were not going to litter! Other traditions were also built early in her life.
“We had an attic and as I got older I knew that’s where the Christmas presents were stored. I never would peek because I always wanted to be surprised. I came to know when they said, ‘Ok, time to take your bath,” that’s when Santa Claus (or the Easter Bunny) came. To this day — and I’m 55 years old — I still get a present from Santa.”
Cheryl’s dad worked odd hours so they would grab the time for Christmas and other holidays when they could, according to his schedule.
Cheryl and her brother were close though seven years apart.
“He was my babysitter because he was old enough to watch me after I got old enough to be left,” she said. “He would tickle me until I cried. I remember one time I bit him. I got so mad at him for tickling me. After that he decided I was too old to tickle.”
Being a teenage boy of about 14 or 15, her brother would “steal” the family car when their parents were out square dancing.
“He’d have to take me with him since he was babysitting me,” said Cheryl, chuckling. “I would sit up in the seat and try to look all grown up. My brother was always big for his age, so he could get away with it.”
During her growing up years the family traveled during the summertime.
“My mother was not a camper. She had to have her shower, so we always stayed in motels. But, we would take our Coleman stove and cook our meals to save money. I would help with the meals and make the coffee. Filling my parents cup with coffee, I’d wear an apron and pretend I was the maid and they always teased about taking their “maid” on their vacation,” Cheryl said, grinning.
By the time she was 16, they had covered many of the states — one year covering the badlands and the Grand Canyon, etching out a section of America little by little.
Lettering in the Girl’s Athletic Association, she was big into swimming, softball and field hockey. However, Cheryl’s health problem held her back when she attempted to follow her dream and become a nurse.
Back then, to enter a nursing program she needed to have great grades and be in good shape physically. An average student and being overweight, the programs turned her down so she entered Carnegie Institute and became a medical assistant.
She worked in the field for the next 15 years even working for one team of doctors — Dr. Urena and Dr. Pena (not from the Valley.)
“You try and say that in a hurry!” she said, chortling.
One day in 1975 Cheryl happened to take a friend, Helen, home from work since it was raining. Helen invited her up for a drink. Back at home at the apple orchard, the job of raking apples awaited her. With that in mind she merrily accepted and went up for a Coke.
Helen received a phone call, talking animatedly into the instrument.
“That was my brother,” said Helen.
“Is he single?” asked Cheryl.
Laughing, Helen said that was exactly what her brother had said when Helen told him she had a friend over from work.
“You wouldn’t be interested,” said Helen. “He’s too old for you, he’s got disabilities, he has four children and he’s hung up on his ex-wife.”
“Helen,” said Cheryl, firmly. “I don’t have to marry the man. I’ll just go out with him.”
When he finally walked into his Mom’s home that evening where Cheryl was to meet him, she was playing a game involving hands with two of the children.
“Uncle Don, you gotta play this,” they cried, scrambling to get to him.
“Here he was, his hands all curled up, [from his disability] trying to play the game. I don’t know — there was just something there. He was my soulmate. It started that night and has been going ever since,” Cheryl said, a glow on her face.
That was on Sept. 27, 1975. On July 9, 1976, they were married. Thirty-three years later they have covered much territory — literally.
In 1988, Don took disability from his job with Volkswagen of America as they were going back to German engineering and he was about to be laid off. Having worked himself into the position of supervisor, because of his disability, he wasn’t able to return to the drawing board and work as a designer.
Knowing her active husband was not one to sit around, she made an astounding statement — “Let’s sell everything and hit the road.”
Having become campers bit by bit over the years, he agreed. Storing precious items in her parents basement, off they went in their 5th wheel, for five years covering the highways and byways of America. Finding their way to Texas — they’d already visited Arizona and Florida — they came to Casa de Sol in 1988 and have been coming every since.
Finally, Don wanted a place to call home, a permanent place. In case anything happened to him, he wanted to know Cheryl would be okay. Buying land alongside the Tittabawassee River, in Gladwyn, Mich., they cleared it, put up a double wide home and settled in for summers, returning to the Valley in the winters.
Avid volunteers — Cheryl teaching stained glass and tole painting and Don as the Bingo coordinator, among many other things — it was a natural to invite Cheryl to become the Activities Director six years ago when the then-director lost her husband.
Giving them the means to return each year, it’s become a lifestyle instead of just a job. Being a young one — 35 when she first stayed at the park — she has been completely adopted as well as adopting all the members of the park as part of her pack.
Having a great sense of humor has helped her over the tough times, though she’s been known to be as strong as the Hulk if the case calls for it. Living with an identical twin — Don — also keeps her on her toes. Don has never let his disability — neuromuscular neuropathy of unknown origin — slow him down, keeping his pilot’s licence for years. Indeed, it’s Cheryl who cries “Uncle” every once in a while.
Some 33 years ago, her family was worried about her decision to marry Don but they needn’t have been.
“I went in with my eyes open and I knew what we were going to face,” she said, a contented smile on her face. “I’ve got no complaints.”