I attended summer camp for nine years, three as a counselor. For all but my first year, I spent at least seven weeks of each summer on the shores of Sebago Lake.
Other than my sisters and my education, it was the greatest gift my parents ever gave me. So much of who I am is who camp allowed me to be.
We lived in cabins perched on rocks or nestled under pine trees that touched the sky. The cabin walls bore the names of birds or native landscapes on the outside; on the inside, they bore the names of the campers who’d lived in them over decades. Cabin mates slept on metal-framed twin beds, their nooks decorated with pictures from home, stacks of books, and artifacts collected during their camp days.
There was no electricity, except in the office and the large kitchen where our meals were prepared. We navigated our evening routines by flashlight, by moon and by memory. We communicated by letters sent through the mail.
There also were no boys. Instead, there were girls from many states in the country and from many countries around the world. There were city girls and suburban girls, athletic girls and artistic girls, quiet girls and outgoing girls. There were girls learning to be friends, to be strong, to be healthy, to be proud of what they could do and who they could become.
We learned to paddle a canoe solo and to sail with a mate. We swam from docks to islands and back again. We hiked mountains and conquered back dives. We built campfires and cooked meals for our friends. We identified plants, and bird calls, and constellations. We sometimes slept in sleeping bags on a mattress of pine needles.
We got homesick and learned how to manage against the preoccupations of home. We kept our cabins clean and our belongings accounted for. We invited each other to play, to participate, to partake.
We showered sporadically. We did not look in mirrors. We all dressed alike, because we wore uniforms. Our distinctions were our personalities.
We sat in each other’s laps, walked arm in arm. We cheered each other on. We laughed a lot, and we smiled more.
The saddest day was the last day. We kept writing letters during the colder months, now to each other. We promised to return next summer, and we did. We went to college together, and celebrated each other’s weddings.
We find each other years later, and we know each other as well as we did when we were living side by side for a few weeks each summer.
When I think of camp, I think of white bathing caps bobbing in the clear lake water. I think of skipping from rock to rock as I made my way from the dining hall to my cabin. I think of the moment I met my first best friend. I think of my sister trying to hide her chicken pox under her swim towel, and of watching her finally master the breast stroke. I think of my other sister singing her way through the leading role in the camp musical, and getting sunburned on the day we all went to Scarborough Beach. I think of my youngest sister, who never joined us at camp but could nonetheless sing every camp song.
Camp taught me about working toward a goal and feeling the accomplishment of it. It taught me that a friend is more than a person you have fun with. It taught me that I was someone to like.
Now I’m in the early stages of preparing my own daughter for camp. It’s as if I’m looking at an extended slow-motion image of her, with an inkling that someday I’ll reflect on this as the time before. I know the girl that returns to me will still be mine, but she will have started to become more of her own creation. She will have practiced at happiness, independence and competency without me.
She will have begun learning herself.
My husband and I are doing nothing more than sending her off. But I know that’s everything.