There is a stack of t-shirts piled on my ironing board. I turn the tv on and wait for the iron to heat up, having carefully placed the dial on the no-steam setting. One-two-three-four-five I count holding the weight perfectly still. The name label magically affixes. Release, fold, next. Then shorts, sheets, underwear, bathing suits, socks. I have spent the past few days scouring stores with a checklist tucked in my purse. Shower caddy. Bug Spray. Anti-itch cream. Clip-on fan. Sunscreen. Raincoat. Flip-flops. Photos. Flashlight. Laundry bag. Clothes. Swimsuits. Pre-addressed envelops. Stuff. We are preparing for camp. It takes a lot to get a child ready and that is just what gets packed. Our 7 1/2 year old is going away for the first time. Overnight. 6 days from home on the Pamlico Sound of the Neuse River. It sounds like a dream vacation frankly with friends, zip wires, sailboats, off-road vehicles, a sharks tooth pile, and a magical mermaid. Legends and truth blended together in a fairytale of camp painted by Coco’s friends and she signed up a few months ago with gusto.
I have learned some tricks myself about camp. Get to drop off early. Pack a day’s outfit in a ziploc bag so it is easy to find. Mail the letters before you leave for camp so she has something to open on day 2. It is a learning curve for both of us. The first of many about being strong and letting go. I am a firm believer in camp and in all adventures new. Spread your wings, meet other people, try something different, learn something new. Come back and tell me all about it. Show me how you will grow and thrive and become.
There have been questions popping up at bedtime when the other sisters are asleep. Will I know anyone? Can I get my haircut before I go? Are there lifeguards there? That is when it hits me. Why on earth did I decide “our” first camp experience should be not only near a body of water but pretty much based on all things aquatic? I confidently assure Coco the lifeguards are as good swimmers as I am and everything will be fine. I then quickly end the snuggling period to flop on my bed and try to comfort my own butterflies of doubt flitting to the surface. I am much more comfortable being the adventurer. I am not so good at being the one left behind. But I guess that is the bargain we cashed in on when we got into the parenthood game.
I went to two overnight “summer” camps my whole life. There were many sports camps and adventures to fill up summer time. Like the year my grandmother brought my cousin and me out to a dude ranch in Montana when we were about 8. My mother had sewn barbie clothes and coloring books for us to play with since we were traveling cross country by ourselves (really, at 8?). This was long before a Container Store or Target so our travel toys were neatly packed in a tall blue cardboard Scotch container. I remember it vividly and would pay good money to see two 8 year olds walking through JFK with cowgirl hats and liquor boxes, by themselves. We had our own cabin about half a mile from my grandparents on the ranch and we were pretty much left to our own devices. I had at least been riding horses for two years. Lis had never been on one and was basically told to buck up, get on the horse and enjoy it. Surely Camp Seafarer won’t be this hardcore right?
My first official summer camp experience took place in 1978 or 1979 at West Point youth camp. We were living on an army base at the time and my brother had attended the year before. I was so excited to finally be old enough to participate in one of the cool things he had done and thus lauded over me. It should go without saying the West Point Youth Camp was a no-frills kind of place. Located in upstate New York on a clear fresh (freezing) water lake, the temperature was perfect for sleeping at night and frolicking by day. We woke up to the bugle or the sound of cadets in basic training. We had the option of running 1/4 mile around the lake as part of the roadrunner club or being a polar bear and dunking your entire body, head included into the lake. Did I mention it was in upstate NY? I loved it. I loved being outside for 7 days straight and I loved my counselors. I still remember one named Joy and the other Karen. She let me borrow her yellow tube top (not sure how it stayed up) one day and would fix my hair in french barretts -those new fangled hair decorations which worked more like a comb. Karen was my pen pal for at least six months after camp and she even dotted her “i” with a heart! I was in heaven. So much so I sobbed when my parents came to pick me up. I did not want to leave and begged for them to puhleassse sign me up for the next session. It did not happen. I think we moved the following summer, otherwise I am sure I would have gone back.
My next summer camp came in 1982, the summer between 7th and 8th grade and this was WAY different. We were living in Virginia Beach by then and everything down there was different from my norm. Everyone went to Camp Chanco, even though it was an Episcopalian camp on the James River. This camp was co-ed. My friend Lori Spadea brought lip gloss and Esprit outfits and I think she even snuck some mascara. At Chanco I learned to sail from Cliff, perfected my cat’s eye making, and fell in love with the ropes course. I think I also learned to flirt. Not with any particular boy, but more standing around in large groups of girls giggling. I don’t remember my counselor’s name but I do know she was from Danburry, VA and had long blond hair. On her free overnight from camp, she went home and made grapeleaves for her boyfriend. She also thought the lyrics to Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a face” were “How’s about a Date?”. The coolness factor was not nearly that of Karen from West Point but she still left a mark.
As I recall these memories and milestones from my own camp life I realize, it is not Coco’s safety I fear for so much but rather this being the first step she will take away from us. Away from me. There will be people from camp she will remember 35 years later for their kindness. I hope there will be a love of outdoors and confidence she gains to empower her spirit. I realize this is not a fast forward button to the freshman dorm. It is summer camp and it is about freedom. Freedom to share yourself in a new light, learn from others in a new way, and come home safely to show your loved ones who you are becoming.