Summer Camp Blues

(or So. Many. Questions.)

The boys went to an overnight summer camp for two weeks.  I’ve had so many questions I’ve been so excited to ask them.  I tried, I really did, to not ask so many questions.  But it was hard.  I wanted to know all about this fabulous experience and understand their new world, even though I probably am not a welcome visitor in that world.  I’ve tried to respect that and honor that, and yet inquiring minds want to know!!  I just can’t help myself.

Did you have fun?
Did you make new friends?
Who is that blonde kid you are always standing next to?  What’s his name?  Where is he from?
What activities did you like best?
What did you learn?

I really think that for the most part, summer camps, especially southern summer camps, are all very much alike.  There is something that can only be called “camp spirit” that is a living part of this magical experience.  Also, all summer camps smell the same – or at least all baggage and dirty clothes smell the same.  This I confirmed as soon as we got home and I opened the duffle bags.  This makes it easy for camp-people to relate to each other, even if they went to different camps.  This is in part how I knew the boys would have a great time, even though they would not be romping through the same forests and streams that I did as a kid.

Remember the fun you’ve had here, remember when you’re away
Remember the friends you’ve made here, and don’t forget to come back some day
Remember the blazing campfire, the swims in our lake too
For you girls (boys) belong to “camp name” and “camp name” belongs to you

And yet each camp is unique, with songs and cheers and traditions all its own.  Sometimes I catch the boys quietly singing a song to themselves that I don’t recognize, and I get excited and ask them to sing louder – because I want to hear the words and the tune.  And because I kind of want to join in.  I want to sing camp songs too!  Maybe it’s a feeble attempt to keep the camp spirit going – to see us through another long school year as if we can sing away the dreariness of everyday life.  But they stop singing and get shy and embarrassed at my interest.  I really should stop asking, and just listen.  That was the original plan: wait for them to start talking and see what emerges.  But I was too excited and impatient for that.

How was the food?  Did you get enough to eat?
How did you sleep?
Was your bunk comfortable?
Was your blanket warm enough?
How did you find making your bed each day?
Did you have any chores?

For two weeks all we had to go on were the pictures posted each day, often throughout the day.  We’d log on and search for our sons’ faces, or really their clothing!  But what was missing was any kind of commentary, the words to go along with each picture.  And so that bred even more questions.

What are you doing there?
What game are you playing?
What are the rules?
Was it fun?
What does your necklace mean?  Is that a tribe thing?

At pickup, my heart was so full it almost burst.  I missed my boys – not the routine, mundane, ordinariness of motherhood, which I did not miss at all – but I missed them, as people.  I missed talking to them each day, listening to them, engaging with them, traveling alongside them on this crazy, mixed-up journey that is life.  It felt so good to be reunited that I couldn’t help but be moved to tears.  But my heart also overflowed with gratitude – that we have the resources to give them this life-changing experience, that we found the right camp for our family, that we managed to pull it all off (overnight camp wasn’t even on the radar until June!).  It all worked out and I hope they will come home as better people – helpful, thoughtful, independent – from their experiences, and I hope that I, too, will be a better parent – re-charged, re-invigorated, re-committed – from having a much-needed break.

We had aspirational plans to break-up the return journey home into two days, but as we passed the half-way point, and as we got further and further away, the pull of home became too much.  Visions of spending one last magical night together in some hotel soon faded.  We knew that we wouldn’t actually have stimulating dinner conversation or engaging family activities.  Having been separated from their iPads for two whole weeks, the boys really just wanted to get caught-up on Fortnite and YouTube.  If they couldn’t be at camp, they were ready to dive back into the real world right then, right now.  A hotel stay would have just delayed and prolonged the inevitable.  So we pushed on.

But as I drove the car away from the mountains, as each passing mile took us northward, a sadness grew inside of me.  I felt sad that I was taking them away from camp.  Where was this coming from?  Why was I having all these feelings?  After all, I wasn’t the one leaving summer camp so why did it feel like I was?  Somehow camp pickup triggered all these long-ago, despondent feelings of leaving my own summer camp.  Somehow that long drive home, with an open road and with nothing but time and quietness before me (boys were plugged into devices and tired of my continuous – badgering? – questioning), my mind wandered to memories and feelings of long-ago.

Summer camp was such an influential and integral part of my childhood and upbringing.  Back then, when it seemed like there was ample supply of time and money, I spent 4 weeks at camp each summer.  Then as I got older it was 8 weeks, and eventually nearly 9 weeks once I was on staff.  Couple that with boarding school and I basically never had a reason to spend time at my childhood home.  And perhaps that was the objective for me – camp was the ultimate escape.  I should be thankful that my boys don’t experience camp in the same say, at least I don’t think so.  It was a fun place to go, a fun place to be, but they were also happy to return home.

How was the campout?
How was the lake?  
How many times did you do the zip line?
Did you take any trips out of camp?
What surprised you?

For me, camp was a place to run away to, a refuge.  The return “home” was a jarring re-entry into the “real world,” one that I’m not sure I really wanted to be a part of.  I wasn’t expecting the end of summer camp for my kids to affect me in this way.  No one else but me seemed upset that camp was over.  No one else seemed distraught at this “major” milestone, which probably just shows how looming and grand camp was in my own life.  For the boys, they went to camp, had fun, now it’s over and life goes on.  And for me, the “it’s over and life goes on” was the worst possible thing that could happen.

I am sad for the boys – that their camp experience has come to an end.  I am sad that I know that I won’t be able to sustain that camp magic at home.  I am sad that they have to return to boring day camp.  I am sad that there are another two weeks after that for which we have no real plan as to how we will fill the days or keep them entertained, happy, busy.  I am sad that school will be starting again, leaving summer memories in the rear-view mirror.

I find myself almost compulsively looking at the pictures online or the camp website or the social media pages – I’ve spent more time on the camp website in the last week than I did when researching camps!  And there’s a trove of treasure there – photos and videos and blog posts spanning much of the last decade.  It makes more sense to me now, now that I’ve seen camp in action and have heard my boys’ stories.  But I just can’t seem to get enough.

Did you have enough underwear? Socks? Shirts?
How did the laundry service work?
Did you have everything you needed? 
Did I forget to pack anything for you?
And most importantly – do you want to go back next year?

I think what I really feel is a sense of fear.  Fear that the camp spirit will begin to die out because there is not enough oxygen in the real world to keep that flame burning.  That’s what I know will happen.  I think that is what I feel most acutely in my bones, in my very soul right now.  I so remember that feeling – of returning home to a place with no camp spirit, to a place that didn’t even begin to understand camp.  I remember missing my friends and the freedom to choose and romp freely, usually with limited oversight or guidance.  I missed the fresh air and the trees and the laid-back, carefree surroundings.  And the silliness and the fun and the genuine feelings of acceptance and belonging.  Maybe my boys don’t share in this fear because they don’t yet know the power of such magic.  Or maybe they know that I do my best to give camp magic a space to live and thrive and grow.

I went to my own summer camp reunion this summer, back at the actual camp with friends I haven’t seen in over two decades.  I had to pull out of the camp gates and drive away from that beloved place, and I didn’t feel any of this.  Maybe it’s because I was a passenger while my friend drove us away.  Maybe it was because I didn’t have a long car journey to contemplate any of this.  Maybe it’s because I was riding a high from a weekend with old friends.  Maybe it’s because I feel like I am doing this to my children, as opposed to something being done to me.  Maybe one weekend isn’t enough time to rekindle those feelings, but two weeks is?

When we got home, I directed my sadness into doing many, many, many loads of laundry.  I even found myself holding back tears as I washed away camp mud from their shoes, feeling as if I was eliminating the last traces of summer camp.  I cleaned out the duffle bags and lovingly repacked all the gear so that next summer, packing will be a breeze.  Toss in some clothes and toiletries and they are ready to go.  So now what?  Where does this sadness go?  What do I need to do with these feelings?

One of my coping mechanisms as a camper was to think about what I would have been doing at that time or day if I had been at camp – and I find myself doing this with the boys too.  I think of them at breakfast and going to activities and playing games with their friends, just as if camp was still going on and they were still there.

At least there is some solace in knowing that camp is over for the season, but even that makes me sad.  There is a lovely children’s book called School’s First Day of School which is all about how the actual school building copes with anxiety and first-day jitters on the first day of school.  I’ve been thinking about how the camp must feel now that the boys have all left – her cabins empty, her paths quiet, her lake still.

Sometimes I fantasize about going back and working at a camp, any camp.  I know this is just the musing of a middle-aged lady, a crazy longing to rekindle the magic of my youth.  One of my sisters stayed on camp staff for many years, and for her, much of the camp magic died for good.  She was there too long, she got to see how some of the magic was made, and once you know the secrets (and politics) of the magician, it might not seem as special any more.  There can be too much of a good thing, even at summer camp.

My mother used to openly express her disdain for the distraught, “camp sick” daughters that would return home after a summer of camp.  She knew we’d rather still be there, than back here at home.  The difference was that she resented us for it, instead of trying to understand or even meet us halfway.  But we were foreigners, speaking a language of our own, connected by stories that no outsider would ever understand.  We probably wouldn’t have let her in even if she tried.  Even now, camp is a tie that will forever bind me to my sisters.  It’s proven far more powerful than blood or familial lines.  I haven’t seen my sisters in almost 6 years, and yet a camp reunion this year finally brought us back to our summer home.  Anniversaries and birthdays and other milestones couldn’t do that.

So now that all of this has emerged, and I’ve had to re-experience the unique trauma of camp goodbyes from an entirely different perspective, maybe it’s my call to find a way to keep camp magic alive at home.  It did strike me as interesting that neither kid made any attempt to keep in touch with their newfound friends – no exchange of addresses (mailing or email) or online user account names, no plans to try to get together!  Is it just a boy thing?  Or maybe they are too young?

I want to stretch out this experience for them – to make it last as long as possible, to sustain all of the good for as far as I can before the real-world ruins it all.  As it always does.  Maybe that’s where the real sadness comes from – I know how this ends.  But I also know camp will be there, waiting to welcome them back, in 50 short weeks.  We just have to get from here to there, one week at a time.

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