This is the first summer in sixteen years that we did not send a child to Camp Miniwanca. Tomorrow is the closing ceremony at this idyllic retreat on the shores of Lake Michigan, and I only know this because my sisters' kids are there. That's my niece in the photo above. She got her skipper's certification in sailing this year, just like I did in the summer of 1977.
Looking back, I'm not sure which was harder - the first day of camp experienced as a child or the last day of camp experienced as an adult.
My first night at camp, I cried in my cot. It was an overwhelming crush of girls - over three hundred attended each summer. Not everyone could be good at the same things. Not everyone could be best friends. But I soon learned that it was enough to be part of the collective. Especially when we sang. Which was all the time.
The songs were so beautiful, many of them old standards from the camp's early days in the 1920s and 1930s. I could not carry a tune but I enthusiastically lent my voice, as all were expected to do, and the result, no surprise, was greater than the sum of its parts. We sounded amazing!
The camp taught balanced living and provided equal opportunities for growth in mental, physical, social, and spiritual realms. I admired the girls who led the Vespers services as much as I envied the girls who pitched in the camper-leader softball game. One night, I was asked to speak in the council circle about our family trip to Iran. It was dark and I couldn't see any faces but when I finished, the camp gave me a startlingly hearty "how-how", which was the Lakota Sioux way to applaud. I realize now maybe that was the first time I publicly told a story.
I experienced some difficult solitary moments as well. But I vividly remember the Sunday morning when, sitting alone surrounded by scented pines, shining water, and dunes dunes everywhere, I came to the very important realization that I could be lonely and happy at the same time.
It was like learning to ride a bike. It was a kind of muscle memory, being comfortable with solitude. And the confidence it gave me changed me irrevocably. It freed me. It gave me a source to draw upon on a daily basis.
When we sent our sons to camp, I couldn't believe the singing in the boys camp. It was more of a shouting. A kind of dramatic hollering. No harmonies. No complex rounds that ended perfectly. Plenty of gestures and "repeat after me" songs. And that's okay. My sons did not glean the same lessons from Miniwanca that I did. There were others - self-reliance, courage, perseverance, patience. Each of them came home with a deep appreciation for their creature comforts and for their parents.
Now my sons and I have quit the arcadian routine that once ruled our lives from June to early August - no bumper-stickered trunks packed with six weeks of supplies, no postcards written home with tales of midnight pranks and lost retainers, no joyous mother-child reunions dramatically playing out on the vast grassy field in front of the eating lodge.
I must be satisfied in the knowledge that my nieces and nephew are, right now, asleep in their tents, skeeters buzzing around their warm breath, the sound of waves breaking in the distance, and the last day of camp still a few hours away.
This Abercrombie & Fitch woolen blanket from the 1940s is exactly the type of covering that campers used on their cots. It even has a name label stitched on it by some devoted mother who certainly missed her child while also rejoicing in the break from parenthood.
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Photo by Renn Kuhnen.
If you would like to read more about camp, here's a humorous post about the time we drugged our kids. It's funny!
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