Sunday, November 4, 2012

sing around the campfire, pt. 1

when i was 9 my my sister came home from a two-week sleep-away camp. she talked about the campfires, the dances with boys, the group picture, something called canteen, the sailing and the songs, and about all the people who were now her friends from other places. she didn't mention kp.

i didn't know anyone from another place besides a couple of cousins, and wondered what it might be like to meet folks i hadn't known all my whole nine years.

the week before she left, she packed a footlocker full of shorts and matching tops, sneakers and bathing suits — another thing i couldn't imagine — packing your whole self up and willingly spending 14 days away from family. where you hadn't already figured out that a witch did not in fact live in the linen closet. where you couldn't fall off to sleep listening to the sounds of your parents in the family room. she was the bravest girl i'd ever known.

i must have asked to go. surely they wouldn't have just sent me to camp without my permission. parents didn't do that, did they? but there my mother was, washing and pressing all my clothes into crisp squares (she has this habit), and we packed the metal trunk full, with socks and clean underwear, stationery and stamps, leaving just enough room for the sweatshirt i was bound to want from the camp canteen.

i had never been away from home for more than a night or two.

but we set off through the countryside. it was a long way, turning down a sandy road in the middle of pines, tall and straight. we drove by a spot in the sandy pine forest where my sister said the devil left his footprints. right outside an episcopal church camp? i hoped there was a fence strong enough to keep the devil out.

suddenly, we were there, driving through the gate, and i looked up at the sign: camp leach. leach. would there be leeches in the water? I wondered. (i doubt i'd learned to spell it right by then.)

we were barely passed the first cabin when my sister jumped out of the car, headed to find her counselors. i stayed close to mama, unsure. i could see the river before me, white clapboard huts scattered about, the masts of small day sailers peeking up from the water. 

i don't remember much about that day. just mama making up my bed and me climbing to the top, where i could see into the bathroom and the showers where there were no doors.

i did know somebody — a girl in my class from church — she was supposed to be my friend— but i was scared of her most of the time. i looked around at the strange faces that would be my cabinmates for the next two weeks and missed the faces of my friends from home.

i think it must have been at supper when the end of my adventure began. i don't drink milk, and so when they put a carton in front of me at the table, i ask for water. nothing doing. drink the milk. and then i started thinking i'm sure about how mama would put a little vanilla and sugar in my milk to get me to drink it. that thought led to watching mama fix supper and the softness of her apron and it was all pretty much over by then. and the tears fell.

somehow i got to sleep that night, and by day things seemed just a little bit better. i met a girl named penny and took her picture with the camera i had brought. 

i can't tell you when it turned again, but somehow i found myself on the phone with mama, and i was wailing. despite the fact that the counselors had taken me sailing and swimming and walking around the camp on my own personal tour. we'd had our camp picture made and heard ghost stories by the campfire and i was there for all of it — for a whole three days. but by that time i'd had enough of trying not to miss home, so there i was again on the phone, begging, pleading. come get me. i'm dying here.

and so she did. 

oh i know you're saying right about now that the only thing to cure a homesick camper is to leave her there and make her tough it up. well, that's probably what my mother should have done, but i can pretty much bet that even when she wasn't on the phone with me she could hear my crying, two hours away, through those pines. and you can bet that i was making everyone around me miserable.

she drove the wagon into the camp yard and i was waiting, my trunk packed inside the cabin. my sister once again combed the grounds looking for her counselors, drinking in the smell of the Pamlico, begging just as hard that my mother let her stay in my place. 

go get your trunk, mama said, and her words melted into me. i was going home. finally. I ran up the short steps and somehow filled with a new-found strength lifted that thing up by myself and straggled out the door.

that's when i saw the dust clouds. clouds kicked up by mama's station wagon, headed toward the gate. she was leaving me. it was not her finest moment.

i guess she thought seeing her would be good enough medicine, that it would buy her another three days without me at home. days of quiet. if i had been my mother, that's what i'd have thought, too. 

but that's what you get for thinking. i was what today would be called a high-strung child, and that translated into a loud and crying one most of the time. at that point in my life, i hadn't found my writing voice, but i had found my voice, surely i had.

so i saw those dust clouds, and i used that voice. screaming. don't. go. don't. mama. wait. please. take. me. home. it embarrasses me to admit what a baby i was.

and i ran. faster than i had ever tried, ran to catch up with her. i can't tell you whether i was running with that damn trunk or if i dropped it in the sand. 

then i saw the breaks, lit up like the tree in the early hours of Christmas.

she stopped, and i got in the car, satisfied that i would no longer be held prisoner in this place where i couldn't get so much as a glass of water, and i was going home.

whether you are the mother or the child in this story, there are no good answers. yes, she should have made me stay (probably never should have come in the first place, or shouldn't have thought i was ready or whatever. ) and no, i shouldn't have cried until all that was left was the driest of sobbing in order to get my way. i don't know about you, but i've been that mother who no matter what i did, it would be the wrong choice. and as for the child, sometimes there are no good answers there, either. no good way to get around what you're feeling except feel.

i was grounded for the rest of those two weeks, where i was content never to be too far from my mother's soft apron as she stood at the kitchen sink. i never went back to camp — never wanted to — but i suppose i am glad to have provided my family with a source of laughter whenever we gather around the holiday table.

my children went to camp and loved it, though when i left them each time, i spent the first 10 minutes crying my eyes out, imagining them feeling abandoned. but they never called home.

in the years since, i've found my voice and learned (sometimes) to temper my tears, so i could leave home, finally, for more than a sleepover. and on a warm July day in 2001 i dropped the kids off at camp and went on an adventure of my own. for five days i traveled coastal north carolina and virginia, promoting my first book. 

on the third day of the trip, i stopped in a small bookstore in elizabeth city, where a line had already formed near the door. i began signing books for students at a local school, one of whom had the last name 'spence'. oh, i knew a girl once named penny spence I said aloud. a suddenly a voice near the back of the line lifted above the din.

'i'm penny spence,' said the brown haired girl i had photographed in front of our cabin way back in 1967. 'do i know you?'

'well, probably not,' i said. 'we went to camp together, but i only stayed three days.'

she didn't remember me, but that was ok. that meant she didn't go home from camp telling her mother about the crazy girl who cried all the time and ran after her mother's car, screaming to beat the band.

writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.