“Mom, I have to tell you something. I don’t think I want to go back to camp this summer.”
A shockwave rippled through my system. I may have even gasped in horror. This could have been worse than her telling me she was pregnant at the age of 14.
Like so many Jews, I was, and always will be, rabid about my camp experience, all 15 summers of them. My father was a camper and went on to be a counselor in the 1940s. My brothers and my sister went. At the age of 3, (yes, 3), I went with my parents to visit my brother and sister on Visiting Day, and not being able to pull me away, they let me stay. Long story.
Throughout the years my daughter has met my best friends from camp. She adores my friend Beth, a Brooklyn girl through and through. When we’re together, the conversation is so fast and furious that she and my husband’s heads get tired from bouncing back and forth between our ongoing, animated chatter. When she hears me on the phone cackling at an octave reserved for conversations with camp friends, she just sits back and smiles.
My old camp in its original iteration was sold many years ago. It became a dilapidated disaster with bunks and other buildings of my youth literally collapsing in on themselves. It went through several owners and became more run down with each change of hands. My camp was never a fancy one, and it never mattered. It was the most magical place on Earth.
Five years ago, a young man with a vision purchased the 100 wooded acres in Connecticut with its remaining structures. He has maintained an incredibly welcoming and empowering summer experience that fosters individuality and a judgement-free zone. Now, however, instead of girls tanning themselves on the tennis courts instead of actually hitting a ball over a net, there are ropes courses and climbing walls.
For mostly financial reasons, I didn’t have the luxury of sending my daughter to camp until she was 13. Instead of the eight weeks that I did every summer, she chose a two-week session—way too short, in my opinion, to begin to form the lifelong bonds and memories that makes camp, well, camp. She went with her best friend from home who had been to another camp where they ate what they grew. I felt very responsible for her happiness, too.
Each day at midday, the camp would post pictures on their website. On that first day I frantically scanned for pictures of my daughter. When I found one of her sitting with her bunkmates on bleachers that I have sat on hundreds of times, I called my ex-husband in a panic.
“Is that a fake smile? That’s totally her fake smile!”
By the third day her smiles became bigger, the camera catching her in fits of laughter, filthy from mud and paint fights and arms around her new friends. I was thrilled. When I was finally able to speak to her by phone, she said she was having a fantastic time and rushed me off the phone. I wanted to know EVERYTHING! In the end, the pictures told the entire story.
When she came home, she and her best friend cried, as I used to do when I came home. They hung pictures from the two weeks around their rooms and followed their bunkmates and counselors on Instagram. They talked about how they couldn’t wait to go back.
But by the time the school year started and she had settled back into her routine with her group of friends—those she has sleepovers with, eats lunch with, and Snapchats with for hours each night—I think the memories of her bunkmates faded into the background.
Throughout the year, I would ask my daughter if she was in touch with any of her camp friends. I know she felt bad telling me that she really didn’t think she’d be friends with any of them outside of camp. I told her that two weeks just wasn’t enough time to form bonds and that maybe this summer she could go longer. Throughout these conversations it became clear that camp was just never going to be her thing.
I’ve often blamed by ex-husband for my daughter not being a natural camper. He’s Irish Catholic and wasn’t a camper himself. That’s the only way I’ve ever been able to justify what seems like indifference to the camp experience. He thinks I tried to push her too hard into loving it, and maybe I did. I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive myself for not being financially able to start her earlier so something might have rooted more deeply.
Even though there was some recent flip-flopping on whether to go or not to go, she broke it to me that she didn’t want to. Her best friend is going with another girl, which breaks my heart. And my daughter feels terribly guilty that she will never be the camp lover that she knows I wanted her to be.
I write this one month before my biannual camp reunion, a weekend-long gathering of generations of campers. The new owner gives us the run of the place, a group of over 100 or so middle-aged men and women who all pretty much look the same as we did when we were on the same Color War teams or making potholders in the Arts and Crafts shack. It is a weekend that has no equal. These are my friends for life and my daughter will certainly find hers in other places.