I haven’t been this exhausted in, well, probably 18 years — since the last time I returned home from summer camp. Only this time, instead of a month spent with other teenagers, I just returned home from a Mother-Daughter weekend at camp with Emma Vance and our friends, Erin and her daughter Evelyn.
Every summer as a kid, I would trade my friends, family and life for a month spent at Camp Merri-Mac in North Carolina. I loved it. I loved everything about it — the wilderness, the traditions, the fun, the friends. To this day, it’s a large part of my life story. Ever since I aged out of being a camper, I’ve longed to go back in time, to climb up that giant hill again, to get painted in tribal colors, to sing until I’m hoarse, to pass out from exhaustion in a bunk bed at night. And, since the moment I found out that E.V. was a girl, I’ve been dreaming of sharing such a special place with her. I’ve imagined the secrets and common experiences I’ll have with her. I’ve thought through what it will be like one day to drop her off and drive away with tears in my eyes — and what it will be like to pick her up with tears in her eyes.
This weekend was the perfect introduction to this era in her life: A Mother-Daughter weekend at Merri-Mac. I am so thankful that I got to be by her side when she was initiated, the first time she jumped into Lake Doris, the first time she breathlessly climbed Windy Hill, the first time she climbed into a bunk bed.
Emma Vance proved herself to be exactly what I had hoped for: a natural camper. In fact, as the youngest girl there this weekend, I’m sure she earned the title of a true Camp Girl. It took about half a day for her to look up at me and sigh, “I wish we could stay here forever.” (Me, too, darling.) And how could I blame her? She narrowly dodged being a Seminole (the tribal gods got it wrong, and when they called her up for blue and yellow paint, you better believe I grabbed that child and corrected them, haha!) and was instead initiated along with Evelyn (and Erin!) into the best tribe, Iroquois. She marched completely undetected like a tiny spy through a minefield of a battleground to the opposition’s flag during the Sock War, then promptly turned around and successfully marched back (not realizing that she had to actually take the flag, not just reach it, to win) while I silently cheered her on from behind a bush. She convinced the lifeguard to jump off the fire dock with her first thing in the morning. She went down the waterslide bravely and lost a (brand-new) shoe to Lake Doris while trying to climb out at the bottom. She got cheers all around for marching up to the top of the tower and jumping onto the blob without hesitation (even I chickened out!). She and I jumped off the regular diving board repeatedly (and even convinced Evelyn to join us). She played tether ball (and renamed it “Bolaball” for some reason) like it was her job. She hit the target in archery, even with her eyes shut. She wandered confidently, made new friends in minutes, ran around the cabin naked, came running at every bell and bugle, and sang her heart out after ever meal. And she only got lost once (landing with the camp nurse thankfully). As we were packing up to leave, she whispered to Evelyn, “I’m going to miss camp,” and Evelyn responded, “But you will always remember it.” And then, in a hushed whisper, she added, “And next year we might be able to come alone!” (And, yes, Erin and I piped in that they would definitely be able to come alone next year…in addition to us joining them for our now-annual Mother-Daughter weekend of course.)
If I were to paint a clipboard for this weekend (a camp tradition), I would decorate it with this: a GIANT Iroquois shield to celebrate E.V. (and all her little friends) being initiated into the best tribe, a sock war flag surrounded by a minefield and a grinning E.V., a baby pruin (canoein’ or pooin’), Christmas spaghetti, a new generation of cup gamin’ (but these old ladies still got it!), Evelyn triumphantly on the top bunk, a tether ball pole, a lost little E.V. hollering “Hello? Hello?”, a collab art piece featuring E.V. crying from a boo boo, Evelyn’s actual boo boo (those dining hall benches are hard!), my brave-hearted girl battle-balling with the big girls, a s’more-faced child hanging with the counselors (who followed my request to not let her fall into the fire), Mae Mae The Hairdresser, E.V.’s response to what she was thankful for about me: “Nuthin, because she been ruling me all day!” (ha! #motherhood #independentchild), strawberry + vanilla yogurt, yeast rolls + desserts, #bravestgirlatcamp, future American Archer, yoga for preschoolers (terrible idea, BTW) and last ones to leave. And, of course, #CampGirl.
At one point during the weekend, the director talked about the comparison of camp and the Gospel — how at Merri-Mac songs and tribes and everything they do is meant to make outsiders insiders, how the whole goal of the Gospel is this. What a beautiful perspective. And then he went on to say that somehow camp is where Christ is tangible (I agree, especially considering I accepted Jesus in the Chapel one hot summer day decades ago), but he said he could never quite explain why. As someone who has experienced it firsthand, I know the answer is this: Stripped of everything — roles, expectations, reputations, pressures, cares, burdens, goals, technology, niceties, comfort, schedules, fears, sleep (and even makeup!) — camp allows you to find your true self buried deep underneath the person the outside world has tarnished. And, somewhere deep inside us is something (someone) that longs to be known, to be worthy, to be loved. Once that person is freed, God can use them, mold them, impact them and speak to them. Camp is the perfect place for God to show up, and He does.
As I tucked Emma Vance into bed tonight, she requested that I sing to her a song that she’s grown up falling asleep to, “From This Haven,” which I learned two decades ago while at summer camp. I sang it as I normally do, until I got toward the end:
Just remember this place we call…
As I paused, it hit me. Suddenly the words I’ve sung to her one thousand times actually mean something to her. I held my breath as I contemplated the weight of that realization, and in the sweetest moment I could’ve ever hoped for, E.V. piped in with her tiny, sweet voice:
…Merri-Mac and the friends who have loved you so true.
I could’ve died. Or cried. Or both. Merri-Mac had such a profound impact on my life, and now it’s begun to impact my daughter. It’s time to pass the torch to her, for her time as a camper to begin.
Merri-Mac: First, last and always.