I have been packing a camp trunk since 1972. I was 8 and it was my first summer at sleep away camp. The trunk was bright orange with my name, "JANE," printed on it in bold, yellow letters. Its memory summons up the same nostalgic longing as that of my first car. I loved it. My mom spent what seemed like months sewing name tags on everything that would fill it. A job I didn't thank her for or appreciate until 30 years later when my first daughter went off to camp; before my labeling methods spiraled downward from sew-on to iron-on to stamped on to Sharpie. For me, that August sea of empty trunks splattered across girl's campus to air out was as much a symbol of summer's end as any of the traditional and romanticized rituals of sleep away camp.
The appearance of the camp trunk marked the beginning and end of my summers for years to come, and it wasn't until the summer before college graduation that I gave it all up and got a "real" job. Though for the record, being in charge of sixty 14-year-olds and a dozen counselors was far better training for life than any job I've had since. That summer marked the beginning of my 15-year sabbatical from camp.
Work, marriage, a baby, another baby, yet another baby -- fast forward to 2001 and it was time to send my oldest to camp. I lived in Manhattan now and my friends with children her age, mostly on round two, preached the benefits of camp in Maine. They went on and on about the retro feel, the perfect weather and the incredible lakes. "Maine!" I protested, "Isn't that a bit far?" "Exactly!" they responded. So off she went to camp in Maine and I soon understood what they were referring to. My husband, also a camp lover, and I set off on a whole new chapter of the camp experience.
As the camp trunks grew from two to four to six so did our visiting day weekend adventures. With each child came new friends and new friends' parents from all over the country. Never one to book much in advance, my negligence sparked a yearly exploration from an Inn on the ocean in Kennebunkport to a hotel in Portland to "cabin" on a lake in Naples. For me the highlight of visiting day itself, aside from seeing my children's happy faces of course, is putting on a bathing suit, walking across the wooden wobbly dock and jumping into the crisp clean, perfectly chilled lake. It feels as if I'm being saturated in a childhood memory.
Over the past few years, as I would tie on the lobster bib, it would slowly hit me that this, as with all childhood passages, will soon come to an end. And here I am. The camp trunks have dwindled from six to four to two and I am now packing up my youngest child for her senior summer at sleep away camp. Secretly, I long to be writing just their initials in Sharpie (yes, that's what it has come to) on ONE HUNDRED EIGHTY single peds rather than a mere sixty. I cannot believe the end is near. I will find my last shady spot in the grass to eat my camp visiting day lunch. For the last time I will be proudly serenaded by an alma mater and cheer and respond with my typical "You were robbed, you should have won sing!" I will sit in the back of a motorboat as my daughter cuts from one side of the wake to another. I will dig through art projects to find the last treasure, a batiqued bandana or a jewelry box made of Popsicle sticks. And when it is all over, I will watch a sprinkling of homesick kids cry as their parents pull themselves away. Though this time, I may be the one crying, not, of course, because I am home sick, but because I will remain, forever, camp sick.