This weekend, as I dropped my daughter off for a week of summer camp, a familiar mix of wet feet and cherry Kool-Aid greeted me at the cabin door. Just one whiff, and I could hear the banjos.
I grew up going to summer camp and there are some things you never forget.
For example, any seasoned camper knows, the first thing you do at camp is claim your bunk. If you are lucky, you can avoid a week of sleeping under a stranger’s sweaty feet by claiming an open mattress on top. If you are unlucky, you settle for the under bunk and make quick work of the window locks, because ventilation is a savior in a room full of hormonal teenagers. I distinctly remember buying a pack of Big Red chewing gum at the canteen to keep in my pillow as an air freshener. Camp smells.
For many kids, myself included, summer camp is the first true separation from home and whether you remember it as a week of survival or freedom, nobody returns unchanged. Camp is transformative- a catalyst to independence, a window to perspective, a small, but significant nudge towards of self-discovery.
Some kids discover a life-long love of crafting or canoeing at camp. I discovered skinny dipping- at Bible camp, no less. I must have had a bunk by the cabin door that year, because I know it wasn’t part of the approved itinerary to lose my shorts in the boat house. God may love us as we are, but camp directors insist on full coverage.
The camp counselors, however, were a little more forgiving. In fact, as a kid, I remember thinking counselors were the best versions of adults. Counselors were fearless- singing and dancing with abandon and praying and coaching with sincerity. My favorite counselor, Hannah, taught us how the art of using Aqua Net to suspend gravity and how to play “Amazing Grace” on her 5-string guitar. By the end of the week, we were prepared to storm Nashville like budding Dolly Partons in our training bras and mile-high bangs.
Camp was simply a week of magic. Scavenger hunts in the woods, lightening bugs in jars, polar plunges into the lake, friendship bracelets, Gods eyes, roasting marshmallows, camp songs, KP duty, skits, Christmas in July, bunk bets, water Olympics, canoe races and lots of watered down cherry Kool-Aid.
But, the best of all, was always the walk down to beach for evening campfire. There, as the sun slipped behind the silhouette of the lake raft and the world was quiet, but for the waves on the beach and the crackle of the fire, you ached for home. Maybe it was because we were so worn out from a day of playing in the fresh air, maybe accumulated layers of sunscreen and bug spray inhibited quick movement, but the spin of the world slowed in that moment, and I remember how lovely it felt to ache with gratitude, to feel thankful for all that was freshly outlined in my memory and all that I longed to retrace. The walk to the campfire was when I learned to hear my own voice, when I learned all that is said in the quiet.
“Mom, can you please stop singing so loudly?” my camper says as she tucks in her bunk sheets.
“I can’t help it- those camp songs are sticky”.
“Actually, I’m kind of going to miss your voice” she whispers.
“You will hear your own”.
I know after one week at camp she will bring home more than legs full of bug bites and a suitcase full of smelly laundry. I know she will be ever so slightly, different on the edges and also more solidly herself when she returns. Camp will do that to a girl.
Marny Stebbins lives in Stillwater with her husband and four children. She is a staunch believer in early bedtimes, caffeine enhancement and humor therapy.