What I Learned at Summer Camp: I Had Always Wanted Sisters; Now I Had Dozens of Them

August 4, 2015 | By | Comments (0)

This three part series features the reflections of three Southern writers on trail rides, campfires, confidence, nostalgia, and slow dancing for the first time. Photographs were taken at Falling Creek Camp and Camp Glen Arden in North Carolina and Camp McDowell in Alabama. Check back next Tuesday for part three.

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I was the girl summer camp was made for. Born late in life to parents who’d been told they could never have a child, I was a big surprise…and a constant, overwhelming worry. No child was ever so carefully watched over. My mother was sure I was dead each time I disappeared from her immediate view. Of course she was a room mother, a Girl Scout leader, a Sunday school teacher. I felt both deeply loved and deeply claustrophobic. Summer was my only chance to escape my mother’s clutches, running the mountains with a whole gang of other kids, building forts, playing cowboys and Indians, shooting BB guns, swinging off cliffs on rope swings and grapevines…until the day a grapevine broke, dropping me down a rocky outcropping. That night I came limping home for supper covered with dirt and blood, scrapes and cuts on my arms and legs, grinning triumphantly. “Me Jane,” I said.

“Wild animals!” Mama wept to my father. “They’re all a pack of wild animals!” Mama took a powder and went to bed. Two days later, she announced that I would be going to a very old and famous camp for girls, over in Greenbrier County, West Virginia.

“Somebody’s got to keep up with you,” Mama said grimly through her Fire & Ice lipstick, implacable even when I burst into tears as they left me and my trunk in front of one of the old rough-hewn wooden buildings that seemed to grow right out of the deep woods surrounding them.

“This way,” the camp director said, and I quit crying even before we reached the tent (a tent!).

I loved Camp Alleghany. I loved the weekend campfire, big as a tepee, followed by the “Camp Spirit Song.” They had a song for everything. I loved being part of the group. I still have the photograph from that first year, all of us grinning into the sun, wearing our navy shorts, white socks, and white camp shirts, with our hair squeaky clean. I loved all my activities: arts and crafts, where we made huge ashtrays for our parents out of little colored tiles; swimming in the mighty Greenbrier River; and drama, where we put on Spoon River. I loved archery and riflery. My canoeing group took a sunrise paddle upriver to an island where we cooked our breakfast over a fire: grits, sausages on sticks, eggs in a giant skillet. Everything had a smoky, exotic taste.

I especially loved the horses—so much bigger than I imagined from my beloved horse books back home. Real horses turned out to be smelly and cantankerous and huge, as big as trucks!
On trail rides, we lurched along like we were in a Western.

I had always wanted sisters; now I had dozens of them. I wasn’t so important anymore. Now I could relax, and grow up some. I got strong and brown as a berry. Camp Alleghany gave me my body, and the sense that I could do something with it— whatever I wanted. And oddly enough, my mother seemed more relaxed, too, glad to have me back instead of terrified by my presence. I went back for years, until I was a counselor myself. I still remember all the words to all those songs.

Lee Smith is the author of 13 novels—including, most recently, Guests on Earth. Her novel The Last Girls was a New York Times best-seller as well as a winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award. She lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina, with her husband.

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