(Originally published August 8, 2017)
It was the summer of ’91 and my husband, clad in a top hat and tux, was belting out “There Is a Sucker Born Every Minute” with all the bravado of Broadway. I, on the other hand, discreetly cartwheeled behind him across the social hall stage in a leotard and costume room cape uncovered from a previous summer’s rendition of “Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Unlike the future father of my children, I had neither lines nor delusions of camp grandeur. But the play was required, so a mute, but boldly-outfitted acrobat was the drama counselor’s solution.
I had no predilection then that this precocious and universally beloved camper was my future. In fairness, I was twelve-years-old, paying attention only to boys that were at least Bar Mitzvah’d. Mike was nothing more than my pet, a sweet kid a whole year younger than me, often clad in an overly self-assured getup of Led Zeppelin T-shirt, Rastafarian beanie, John Lennon sunglasses and not a hint of irony or at least self-awareness that he was a Jewish boy from Long Island and decades too late. But this affable kid who rejected embarrassment as I somehow managed to revel in it secondhand, over the years became, as so many of us do when afforded that eight week freedom to be the person that we see in ourselves, a fixture at this summer home that still remains to each of us the most influential place on Earth.
And so, it was in a desperate search to regain a semblance of this wholesomeness that I lost somewhere on the campus of my small liberal arts college that I returned to camp as a counselor after a long hiatus. The campers had not yet arrived when I abruptly dialed my mother from a payphone and told her that I knew the person that I would marry. There were two peculiar things about this canteen-side confession. First, I was not a believer in sharing feelings. And second, I wanted to be perceived as emotionally detached, so falling head-over-heels in love, admitting it to myself and then unabashedly declaring it to my mother was against my principles.
But Mike had called shotgun on me. Like the front seat of a car. It seems that he had loved me all those years since he stood on the stage as P.T. Barnum and, when news hit that I would be returning, there was a scramble amongst his former bunkmates and “calling shotgun” felt like the appropriate way to secure his future.
Beyond Mike’s chivalry, something immediately struck me. I instinctively foresaw that the uncomplicated joy I felt at camp would not be left behind, but that with Mike, who embodied the spirit of this place, we could invariably carry camp with us into adulthood. It was as though the idealism of my past had collided with the fantasies of my future — I was in the middle and I could still choose both. I didn’t love him because of camp, but I loved Mike because his free-spirited character exuded all of those precious and happy qualities that camp also represented to me. And, while the reality still seemed a lifetime away, I knew with pure conviction that Mike’s children were going to have a lot of fun. Simply put, he was the ultimate camp counselor — legendary for his shenanigans, but also a mentor to his campers and champion of the misfits, making all kids feel good about themselves with his knack for celebrating not just their achievements but also their idiosyncrasies. Mike seemed destined to one day be the kind of dad that would make kids feel lucky because he was theirs. I wanted to be the mother of those kids.
Looking back, it comes as no surprise that the essence of camp - laughter, tradition, individuality and camaraderie - would be the foundation that I required in the family I created as an adult.
As we planned our wedding, more than seven years after that phone call home, we instituted our mantra — as long as we were still finding a way to laugh together we would get through anything. If camp had a resonating sound beyond the countless HC shack announcements squawking over the speaker system, the collective shower hour whir of hair dryers on Girls Camp, or the chosen anthem of each summer blasting from the wooden bunks, to me it would unequivocally be laughter.
So when we were told in our early thirties that the children in my visions were never to be, it was remembering that original need to be the mother of Mike’s lucky kids that kept me forging us ahead through three long years of heartache and disappointment. And finding that laughter— even in the darkest moments — sustained us. Our now six-year-old twin boys Crosby and Sawyer, also known as Sweetlips and The Bean (because nothing says camp like an eternal nickname), have proven that my youthful convictions were true. I often hear them telling Mike that he is their best friend.
Now, we did not go to scouting camp. From my husband they will never learn to survive in the wilderness or forage for food. We went to a plush sleep away camp in the Poconos where we brought our own down duvets and counselors snuck in pizzas after their nights off. When it comes to survival skills Mike can’t screw in a lightbulb. Because ‘they never go in straight.” And the one time I asked him to hang a gifted mezuzah I became the victim of a self-inflicted hate crime. That one has always bewildered me as hammers are, without argument, the most straightforward tool in the box.
Mike has to their amusement educated our children on how to relieve themselves in the great outdoors, even though I am quite certain that in all our camping years we never actually went camping, making this resourcefulness altogether unnecessary. There were always bunks with multiple toilets and even showers that, while perhaps required flip-flops, were within feet of us. So when Bean dropped his drawers and peed in the flowerbeds at the entrance of his nursery school while the other mothers watched in horror, I felt validated that this boyhood life lesson was unwarranted and misguided.
It’s not that Crosby and Sawyer do not see Mike as an authority figure — although at my nephew’s bris he could be found sitting in a corner sucking in helium balloons and shouting out different words for male genitalia — but as a confidante that will guide them through both the confusion and the comedy of their coming of age. If only I could summon the resilience not to laugh.
A few years ago, we learned that one of our boys had been uncharacteristically mean to a girl in his class. Mike left a meeting and within an hour was waiting for him outside of swim. Our son explained that he loved a girl and her best friend was coming between them on the playground. He was jealous. How someone his age could have feelings that are so mature and complex surprised us, but now he was also beside himself with our disappointment. Mike discussed our parental expectations — that harmless mischief may slide, but kindness, respect and understanding of others is fundamental. Mike then footnoted our camp-learned code of conduct with advice for his little buddy. “Sometimes the way to impress a girl,” he told our toddler, “is by winning the heart of her best friend.” My husband knows firsthand that a boyhood crush, no matter how youthful or innocent, is a sacred thing.
What Mike teaches our boys is to have fun without abandon. To celebrate those that are different. To laugh like they are bunkmates on a lifelong adventure. To follow their hearts in love and in life. To feel the confidence to be whomever they know themselves to be. May Crosby and Sawyer too have the self-assurance to play lacrosse by day and passionately belt out show tunes by night.
I will continue to bandage their knees, pack their snacks, wipe their tears, put chains on the tires in the snow (one of us needs to have life skills), cartwheel when they are centerstage and be the enabler and sometimes even the initiator of the inane.
I feel blessed that when I say, “It smells like camp,” after a rainy day, Mike knows from our collective experience that I mean wet asphalt baking in the sun. And when our boys go to bed singing Taps it is because this ritual reminds us both that, at the end of the day, we are blessed. The collective memories of our happiest place do not need to be explained — they are shared — and our kids are products of that joy.
And while we have plenty of our moments, it delights me that my husband always sees me as he did when he was eleven. He sometimes asks how it makes me feel that after all these years he still has a crush on me. I carried two children in my stomach at once. The butterfly tattoo that once seductively peeked over my vintage jeans grew to be a pterodactyl and has since shriveled to what appears to be a dying moth. It makes me feel forever young…and also very loved.
Realizing that it has been nineteen summers since the canteen and decades since Barnum, I recently turned to Mike while getting ready for bed and as I put my bite plate into my mouth casually lisped, “You know, you are the only person in the world that I would want to spend every waking minute with.”
Dumbfounded — in part because the girl of his pre-pubescent dreams now sleeps by his side, never mind that the adult orthodonture alluded his childhood fantasies — Mike half-jokingly responded, “That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.” I am still not a big believer in professing my emotions.
But to me, my husband is camp. And there is still no place I’d rather be.
It should come as no surprise that we live in a ramshackle 120-year-old farmhouse with board and batten barns that always smell like camp. From dessert to design, here are a few other reminders of summer sleepaway all grown up.