Church Camp – a love letter

My first church camp was Camp Ghormley*, up on White Pass in Washington State. I went in maybe 1986 with my church youth group. I was young – Thane’s age perhaps. I remember loving the songs around the campfire, the way the bark on the pine trees fit like a puzzle, the deliciousness of a 5c green apple Jolly Rancher, and that our youth director (in one week) fell off the zip line and hit his head (blood everywhere) and slid down the railing of a cabin in tight shorts (extensive and embarrassing splinter removal). His name was Clayton, he had a Texan accent and a funny tick of jerking his head to his shoulder. We tried really hard to keep him out of trouble, but it took more than the combined powers of our Church youth group to work miracles like that.

There are no photos of me at Ghormley. Cameras were expensive. I certainly wouldn’t have given one to a kid to take to camp. So all I have are vague memories and well-memorized camp songs.

In fourth grade, we moved from the town with the big Presbyterian Church (it was PCUSA at the time) and to a town where on some Sundays the folks on the “Great War” honor roll were more plentiful than the folks worshiping in the pews. There wasn’t a youth group (there were four of us though!) but there was still Presbytery church camp. After a break of a year or two, I went to Buck Creek (now defunct, I’m afraid) where I went backpacking for the first time in my life. Even though we got rained out and were poorly kitted, I was totally and completely hooked on backpacking. We slept under the stars, back at the field at Buck Creek, and the Perseids were in full blossom across the sky and I could not shut my eyes. From then on, I took every possible opportunity to do backpacking camp. I loved the backpacking. I loved nature. I loved the songs, and the sense of worship. It’s still one of the most holy things for me.

So when Grey was like in 1st grade I started looking up the Presbyterian Camps in the area. Our church had a relationship with Camp Wilmot, so it was a short search. The very first summer he was old enough, he was signed up. But as I followed circuitous GPS directions into the “parking lot” (eg field area) I was struck by serious doubts. He was so little. He was so clearly uncertain, and nervous. And so was I, I realized. I knew *no one* at this camp. No kids. No grownups. Nothing. I was going to leave my beloved first-born child in the wilderness in the hands of strangers.

First year dropoff

I drove away anyway.

Around Thursday I got a letter. It was short – two sentences. They were both dedicated to how amazing Anthony’s BBQ chicken was.

When I picked him up he was tired, happy to see me, and ready to come back again the next year.

He wore that shirt all week – it was in every picture

The next year, he talked no fewer than four of his friends into coming to camp with him. (I think he’ll do very well in sales, if he chooses, as a career.) Where he’d been alone and afraid the first year, he was in excellent company and confident the second. And he remembered his favorite “camp shirt” as well.

The “latrines” photo has become a favorite of the parents. We threaten to hold their candy money hostage if they don’t cooperate.

Last year he was ready to do both sessions. He’d originally claimed that he didn’t need to be picked up, but called on Thursday asking for a day at home. They don’t go to bed until like 10 pm there and they’re up at 7, which is a short sleep ration for a kid his age. Also, I think he missed the cats.

I’m not sure where Matthew is in this one

This year is going to be the epicalest yet. Today I drove a packed car up to New Hampshire with a wild game of poker in the backseat (Grey: “I packed poker chips!”) and a friend in the front seat. This year he’s going to do a full two weeks. On the second week, his brother will head to camp for HIS first ever sleepaway camp (and Adam and I will be childless! Craziness!) And he and his Camp Wilmot compatriots have been talking about the awesomeness of the camp all year. This year, a total of ELEVEN kids from our town will make the trek up to White’s Pond to experience Anthony’s BBQ chicken.

There are so many incredible and wonderful things summer camp does. It gives us all practice in living without each other. The role of a parent is to raise a child who doesn’t need us. Camp is an excellent experiment in structured self-reliance. No one made Grey change his shirt, but he came home happy and healthy. He packs his own bag. He knows things that we do not know. I think it’s a grievous thing to send a person to independence for the very first time when they are an adult, and there is no safety net. Summer camp is how you practice for college. It’s also a place for children to have deep meaningful thoughts, and begin to stretch the muscles of what *they* believe and what *they* think and what’s important to *them*. Some of my greatest moments of faith happened at summer camp. I can only pray that my sons find the experience meaningful and moving too.

It also plays an important role for we parents. I am more than halfway through the raising of Grey. Thane is only a few years behind him. Who are Adam and I, when we are not coparents? What interests do we share? What bonds have we strengthened? In the week our children are learning to kayak and kyrie, we can also remember the love we have for each other.

It’s hard to walk away from your kid, like I did that first year. It’s hard when your kid walks away from you and doesn’t look back. But it’s good and right that they practice doing just that.

Week 1 latrine photo
We decided to take our OWN latrine photo
Goodbye, boys. God bless.

If you’d like to follow along with all the info we get on camp, you can follow “Camp Wilmot’s Facebook page. If you’re suddenly dying to send your kid, you can still register for week 2. And if you happen to have a truck that will pass registration and which you don’t want anymore, that’s a tough capital purchase for a scrappy summer camp. They’d be incredibly grateful for the donation!

* If I’d known about this at the time, my campfire ghost stories would’ve been epic! “But upon his sudden death in 1948 (he was stricken fatally ill at the camp as he was preparing to begin a week of camp for children) members of the church moved to have the camp named after him.”

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The perfect age of boy

I remember when Grey was about three months old. He’d just started smiling. I looked over his fuzzy head to my husband and said, “I wish I could just freeze him at this age. He’s just perfect.” I wished it again at a year, and at three years (each time thinking I’d been foolish the last time – he’d clearly only improved). Granted, there were a few times in the life of each boy I haven’t wished to freeze them in place (see also: Thane at 4, Grey at 6), but so far I’ve really enjoyed my sons.

This last week or so was a particularly great time to be their mom.

On Friday, I installed Pokemon Go. I mean, everyone ELSE in the office was playing, and I’d really enjoyed Ingress. It’s, um, a touch addictive, so I happened to mention to the boys. Which explains why I spent hours this week, walking around my town with my youngest son, consulting my living breathing encyclopedia of all knowledge Pokemon related. (Seriously, these kids are amazing. They can rattle of the evolution paths, types, relative rarity and stats on like hundreds of different Pokemon. This may seem like arcane information until they’re out of their minds excited because you caught an Eevee, which can evolve into any type!)

Thane and I walked along the waters of Spot Pond for two hours today, trying to catch water type Pokemon. We stood in the twilight, and listened to the wolves in Stone Zoo howl to the waning crescent moon, while catching yet another Ratatta.

Serious Pokemon Expert
Serious Pokemon Expert

Thane will have considerable time this next two weeks to display his astonishing expertise to me. This afternoon, on a cold and drizzly day, I dropped my eldest son off at Camp Wilmot, with four other good friends by his side. It was a very gray day, and a very long ride in the car. About an hour in, he said, “Mom, I appreciate you doing so much driving. I appreciate everything you do for me. Thank you.” Awwwww. I think he’s actually gotten more affectionate as he’s gotten older, and better sees what it is that his parents do for him. I’m going to miss his good company over the next two weeks, very much.

Even though he was more than ready for me to go, and invited me to depart _several_ times before I actually went. There’s loving your mom, and not wanting to look too much like you love your mom at dropoff time.

I’m under strict instructions to write regularly, and to send a care package with his father’s bread in it.

The camper, very ready for his mom to depart
The camper, very ready for his mom to depart

You can see pictures from our 4th of July Camping Trip, and this Camp Wilmot dropoff! Enjoy!

Hello mudder, hello fadder

I don't know about all this, mom.
I don’t know about all this, mom.

I have often thought about a “Baby Book” to capture the truly meaningful firsts our children present us with. Today’s first is a doozy: first time I dropped him off in a place where both he and I knew exactly zero people and drove away with a promise that I’d be back in a week. Not only that, but you go to podunkville (aka Concord NH) and take a left for about 40 minutes. The route there involved actual dirt roads. I felt like Abraham going on a nice little walk with Isaac.

Classic summer camp.
Classic summer camp.

Grey was super subdued on our trip up. I’d opined that I thought it would be good for him to do the trip up without screens, expecting that this was completely unrealistic. I also bought him Garrison Keillor’s “Pretty Good Joke Book”. This lead to predictable results. Also, the book is clearly less G-rated than I thought, as I, um, had to explain quite a few vocabulary words I was hoping to have a few more years on. I guess it was a good chance to tell him what they really mean? (Sample: “Son, let’s have a talk about sex” “Sure dad, what do you want to know?”) But even without any screens on a 2.5 hour trip, the back seat was very, very quiet.

“Mom? Is it normal to feel both excited and scared at the same time?”

Yes son. It’s very, very normal.

Archery? Things are looking up!
Archery? Things are looking up!

Last night he had a rough night going to bed. I think packing his bags helped impress upon him that he was really doing this thing. He was really going to a new place he couldn’t visualize with people he didn’t know doing things he couldn’t imagine. It probably doesn’t help that 100% of his knowledge of overnight camp comes from Foxtrot cartoons. (“Will people prank me?”) I called my folks, and my brother the Presbyterian-Summer-Camp-Champlain who all reassured Grey it would be fine! Great! I could hear his skepticism. He squirmed and looked miserable. “I’m not going to know anyone! I wish I wasn’t going.” He finally fell asleep with his head on my lap, for the first time since he was a baby.

I was super relieved this morning when he insisted on an early departure because he didn’t want to be late. There was the quiet ride. We drove over the highly civilized dirt roads, and got to Camp Wilmot maybe a half hour early. He and I walked the grounds while the camp got itself ready for the latest influx. He insisted on carrying his very heavy backpack (“I need to learn to carry my own things!”), but didn’t want to see the lake. Or the cabins. Or the labrynth. Or the big hill.

Instant BFFs with Ethan
Instant BFFs with Ethan

As we were walking back up the hill to register, a young man – Ethan – came to introduce himself. “Hey, I think I’m your counsellor!” They hit it off like a house on fire. Grey stood up straighter and looked much less skeptical. As we registered, he confided to me that he and Ethan were “just alike!”. When the time came to walk down to the Purple Cabin that will be his home for the week, his stride had the strength of a kid who no longer knew no one. I said goodbye and turned to go. He sentimentally started showing Ethan the “Grossology” section of his Bible. (Mom knows how to keep a kid’s attention!)

Grey's home for the next week
Grey’s home for the next week

He was great. I was fighting tears. And that’s it. I will have an update in a week, if all goes well. So will you. We’ll both wonder together how things are going. Will he remember his sunscreen? Will he have trouble going to sleep without his brother? Will he like camp cooking? Will he feel the Holy Spirit sneak into his soul at the evening campfire?

You and I will never know the full story. Grey is the writer of his own tales now.

Someone who is temporarily an only child spent the day creating wooden Dragons of Kir pieces with his daddy.