When I was growing up, summer was my favorite season. I am sure this is true of many of us. My childhood summers unfurled at a leisurely pace, full of long afternoons on a swingset, the snapping sound of halyards against sailboat masts, sticky s'mores at sunset, and the fuzzy feel of tennis balls in my hand. There was very little supervision and a surplus of laughter and sandy feet. The memories I have of these months as a child are strong, strung across all of my senses, but there is no question that the most vivid are of my years at a summer camp on Cape Cod.
Credit Image: gelatobaby on Flickr
Summer camp was the still point in a childhood of constant motion. I moved four times across an ocean and attended a new school every few years. Camp was the one place that stayed steady and as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized how vitally important it was to me. I grew up, I now know, in those Cape Cod dunes and on those playing fields, among that group of peers and led by counselors who were themselves basically children, not much older than I was.
I met one of my very best friends, Jessica, there, in a cluttered cabin full of bunk beds, trunks, old-school tape-deck radios, and pink pattered pillowcases. We walked to the shower cabin with our shampoo in square plastic buckets with handles, wood chips sticking to our feet even though we wore flip-flops. She starred in the camp musical. I watched and applauded, my cheeks hurting from smiling. We sang "Christopher Robin" and "Circle Game" and "Landslide." We walked on the beach at low tide and swam in the ocean at high tide. We watched movies in an old, damp cabin on rainy days. We dressed in all white on Sundays, watched the flag come down, and went to weekly vespers services. As we grew up we moved through the camp’s units and the JC program, and became counselors together. We fell in love, with boys and then with men, and most of all with each other.
Jessica and I wrote endless letters back and forth across two continents. We stood by each other at the altar on our wedding days, in June 1999 and in September 2000. On Jessica’s wedding day it was hot and sunny. On my wedding day it poured and there was deafening thunder. She was the first person I called on the morning I got the startling surprise of two faint lines on the pregnancy test. We had our daughters exactly 12 weeks apart. We experienced pain and loss and incandescent joy. We shared it all.
To this day my heart leans back to the ocean. Always back to those formative summers on Cape Cod that I shared with Jessica. Back to beach grass and dunes and tides and sunsets and acoustic music and words, words, unfurling on the page and beyond the horizon. Back to the girl I was.
And this summer it was my daughter’s turn. And it was Jessica’s daughter’s turn, too. One day in July we drove to Cape Cod and dropped them off, settled them into their bunk beds, Grace on top, Julia on the bottom, and headed to the pool for their swimming tests. And then we walked away. As we made our way across the bright green field in front of the camp’s Big House I felt ghosts whispering around me. I remembered climbing up to the roof of the outdoor theater to spell out our Color Wars team name in towels. I remembered falling in a gymnastics meet and breaking my arm. I remembered singing "Circle Game" around a campfire, arms slung over the shoulders of girls on either side of me, swaying in unison. I struggled to reconcile the fact that I was just a camper in this very same place with my knowledge that that was half my lifetime ago.
We drove away from camp, leaving Grace to walk through grounds so thoroughly littered with my memories I imagined she’d be constantly tripping on them. But then I reminded myself: she doesn’t see those memories. They are mine. My chest ached, heavy, and my eyes stung with tears the whole way home. The past and the present telescoped together as I imagined my daughter sitting on the familiar rough hewn benches for morning assembly, as I imagined her learning the words to some of the songs I still knew by heart, as I imagined her crying, writing her address over and over again in various small notebooks, preparing to say goodbye to friends whom she hadn’t known 10 days ago but now could not conceive of living without. The weight of my own summers, all those long days, swollen full of joy and learning and enthusiastic adventuring rose up inside of me. I felt it collide with the freight of my excitement for her, my fervent hope that she, too, will love this unique place that has meant so much to me.
My patient husband drove without asking me why I was crying, letting me look out my window and wipe tears away in silence, letting me sink deep into a well of wonderment whose waters were distinctly tinged with sorrow. Summer is my favorite season but it is also a sad one, for reasons I’m still figuring out. This mostly has to do, I suspect, with the way summer marks in a clean, clear way the passage of another year. The tennis shoes are all too small in June, the breaststroke is markedly smoother from the year before, and I am forced to confront, yet again, how swiftly these years with small children are flying. It is also, I think, because my own memories of my summers are so happy; being re-immersed in those intensely joyful memories as I watch my children throw themselves into their summers is the definition of bittersweet. Sweet because I want nothing more than for my children to fill themselves up with the poetry of these moments, writing permanent stories in their memory. Bitter because I can never go back there, and also because I know their own time in this circle of sunshine is limited, too.
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