This summer of 2017 has been amazing for me in a totally unexpected way. My nine-year-old granddaughter went to sleep-away camp for the very first time – 3½ weeks at a girls’ camp in Vermont. Every night, her camp posts several hundred photos taken that day, so that parents can see their daughters in action. Thanks to my son and daughter-in-law linking me in, I’ve been checking out photos each morning for the last 3½ weeks.
I can pick out Ruby in a heartbeat. She has a huge, infectious smile. I’ve seen her playing tennis and volleyball, doing archery, and paddle-boarding. I’ve seen her working with clay, reading a book, acting in a play. I’ve seen her dancing, doing gymnastics, making do-it-yourself sundaes, climbing a mountain, and wearing green make-up, green beads, green tee shirt and tutu after being named to the green team, to which she will belong for as long as she returns to the camp – and I’ve thoroughly loved every one of these pictures, mostly because of how happy she looks.
But a funny thing happened at the two-week point. I began seeing more shots of Ruby arm-in-arm with friends. This being the first summer camp experience for most of the girls her age, it has taken two weeks for them to bond. I know this. I’ve lived it. Watching the progression with Ruby, I found myself tearing up time and again.
I went to sleep-away camp for seven summers, celebrating my 9th birthday there the first year and my 15th birthday there the last. I went to the same camp all seven years, progressing from the youngest bunk to the oldest. The pictures here are all, in fact, of my camp. For those eight weeks, I lived in one of the above bunks with seven other campers, two counselors, and no electricity. At my camp, all 165-or-so campers went for eight weeks; there was no shorter option. And while there was parents’ visiting weekend in the middle, my camp immersion was total.
Those summers were, hands-down, the happiest times of my childhood.
Seeing Ruby brought it all back. For starters, we had similar daily activities. We did softball and volleyball, archery and tennis. We did swimming twice each day. We did arts and crafts, and party-prep when a bunk-mate had a birthday. We climbed mountains, took canoe trips, and sang at campfires. We cheered our hearts out for our teams during color war.
But we also bonded. Big time. Spending eight weeks together is conducive to that. At the end of each camp summer, after a huge color-war build-up, a final banquet, and much trepidation about leaving my friends, I was always in tears driving home. My parents never understood that, were actually offended, I think. But when my only son who chose overnight camp did the same thing, I got it. His tears were a sign not that his family was that bad, simply that camp friends were that good.
Yes, it was about friends. I had them at camp in ways I never had anywhere else until I started college. Though I was from Boston, my camp friends were from New York, Washington, Cleveland, Memphis, and Houston. We didn’t have email back then, so we spent our winters snail-mailing. The closer summer came, the more we anticipated the camp season to come, seeing each other again, doing new activities and enjoying new privileges the older we got.
Ruby’s pictures brought all this back. Seeing her with her friends, all of them in their ‘blues and whites,’ with the red plaid sash crossing their torsos, I remembered. My camp didn’t have sashes, and our colors were blue and brown. But the joy of camaraderie was exactly the same.
I treasure these memories, always have, always will.
P.S. As I said earlier, the pictures above are from the camp I attended those seven summers, Camp Pinecliffe in Harrison, Maine. I found these shots online and include them here for you to get a feel for where I was. Believe it or not, the camp looks exactly the same in these shots as it did when I went. And trust me, I would have used photos of my own if I’d had them. Oh, I did once. But when I was 19 and we sold our family home and moved into an apartment, the cartons with my childhood memories were all thrown out. I was not there. I was not asked if I wanted them. I lost a big piece of my life when someone tossed them away. That said, I do have my memories. Or, as one of the characters in my new book says, “Life changes but memories don’t.”