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.

17 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Amy on May 31, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    As always – I am moved to read your writing. And…in my experience, Camp Seafarer was absolutely that hard core and more…in a way that expects girls and women to be smart, capable and strong – with a smile on your face and lovely manners. My girls will join yours next year…maybe we can all do family camp?


    • Super cool. I love you went there -I hope Coco comes out as poised, strong, and cool as you. YES to family camp for sure. We are friends with the director, Henry DeHart (did you know him as a camper or Robert, Karne, and Allen Marshall? We live in Raleigh with them. What about Alex Techet?) and he says we need to come down. Greg got to go for a weekend with our oldest…jealous!


  2. Loved reading this! Nice one…hope Coco loves it! I know she will…they do a great job. Your camp memories are awesome. Many people don’t understand why you’d go to summer camp. You’ve nailed it here.


  3. Posted by Krisia on June 15, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    Hey Mel, I really love reading this. I’m up at camp right now, going through pre-camp training with all the counselors before our 1st session girls arrive. Hearing your perspective reminds me of how important my job is as a counselor — to keep our campers safe, help them build confidence and independence, and make sure they have fun and memories that will last a lifetime. I hope Coco had a blast and I can’t wait to hear about it hopefully up here in Maine in August 🙂


  4. Posted by Lori spadea on December 22, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    Wow! Trip down memory lane. I think I kissed a boy for the first time that summer:)
    Good thing I brought lipgloss! My son is 8, not interested in sleepover camp yet. I bet my daughter will be soon though! Great reflection.


    • THIS IS SO COOL! How did you find me or the blog? Where are you now? I live in Raleigh NC. we have 3 girls 8, 6, and 3. With all these 80 fashions back in style I am reminded of you often. I remember your super cool bedroom too. Hope you and your parents are well.


      • Posted by Lori spadea on March 7, 2012 at 9:32 pm

        I don’t know how I came across it, but it’s so cool 🙂 made me smile.
        I’m still in VB. 3 kids 6,7,and 8.
        Divorced but getting remarried in May and teaching Kindergarten (which I totally love!)
        My youngest son has dwarfism and it’s been a wonderful experience so far. Turned 40 this year…yikes, but totally happy with where I am and where I’ve been. I hope I am as good a parent as my parents were:)
        XOXO keep in touch!

  5. Posted by Tim Sheridan on June 19, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    I lived at West Point between 1967-1970, and went to the West Point Youth Camp with the boys. My memory was more the para-military training they expected of 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade boys at the time. It crossing my mind this summer, and I was trying to find some remaining historical reference on the web, then I ran into your blog. So, it was good to see it in writing. I was a member of the Polar bear club, mainly because it go me out of having to do Kitchen mess hall duty. I don’t mind pealing potatoes or doing the dinner tasks, but cleaning up after industrial eggs sort of makes me ill. It was far better to report to the ice cold lake and swim a mile during the morning. Do you have the actual name of the lake? Is there any evidence of this camp today?


    • Thanks for reading and your comments. I have no idea what the lake name is -but my brother may remember. I think there were some USMA soldiers there in the early am rowing so the school itself may know. When I googled to find the camp I found nothing. We lived on Fort Monmouth 1977-1981 in Rumson, NJ at the time when I went and I think many of the kids there did as well. I would love to know more if you ever find anything…


    • Posted by kelly Swanson on June 24, 2012 at 11:13 pm

      I went there too when I lived at West Point from 1977-1981. I thinkit was Lake Frederick. I just looked it up online and there is a campground there now. They even rent out the A frame cabins. There are pictures online at the West Point recreation site


  6. Posted by denise on July 29, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    It is possible I was in your cabin!! Do you remember me? I was there in 1979, I had Joy and Karen, my name is Denise. Wow! So many memories. My daughter went to her first camp this summer…it was such a luxury, A/C, TWO bathrooms IN the cabins, water slides, etc. Lol!


  7. Posted by John Constance on July 22, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    Melanie, you are a very talented writer. Have enjoyed catching up on some of your past blogs. Camp Chanco is adjacent to Swann’s Point Plantation and Hayden’s (my wife’s) grandfather came back to Surry County from Waukeshau, Wisconsin to manage the farm just after the first World War. Swann’s Point Plantation was part of a wedding gift to Pocahontas in 1614 from her father, Chief Powhatan, when she married colonist John Rolfe. Hayden’s family is somehow related to the Rolfe’s and in fact, we named our youngest daughter, Brittany Rolfe Constance.


  8. Hi Melanie. I was a camper at West Point Youth Camp in 1977, and then returned as a CIT (Counselor in Training) in 1978 and 79, if memory serves.

    I came across your post when I was searching for anything written about that time.

    Our memories are similar.


    ps. I taught disco dancing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: