I was brought up in a barn. No, really: when I was a kid, my parents bought an old farm in Massachusetts as a weekend project (!) and most of my weekends as a child were spent ferrying to and from New York City, helping my parents turn the barn into House Beautiful. As a result some of the more usual rites of childhood passed me by, among them, summer camp. Who needs to go to camp when you’ve got a summers-long project in the Berkshire mountains? At least that was my family’s take on things. I never felt the lack of summer camp in my life until I met and married my husband. Because in marrying him, I was marrying into Killooleet.
That’s Killooleet, in the photo above. 300 acres of Vermont hillside, field, and lake. Arts, crafts, sports, horseback riding, drama, hiking, rambling, giggling, singing, reading and playing board games and staring into the flawless Vermont sky. My husband went to Killooleet for four years; his younger sister went there; his two east-coast nieces went there. And when, in the fullness of time, we had kids, it was a given that they would go to Killooleet. And so they have.
When we lived in NYC this was not difficult: at the beginning of the summer you take your kid to Grant’s Tomb at Way-Too-Early-In-The-Morning a.m. to meet the bus, and most of the campers pile on with their backpacks, their sack lunches, their iPods and books and stuffed animals that were too sacred to be trusted to the dufflebags that went on before. And eight weeks later you return to Grant’s Tomb and retrieve your child, who has now had a whole summer of experiences you can only be told about. It’s a crash course in empty-nest syndrome, and it’s good for both parties.
Since we moved west, however, the whole process has become hugely more complex, since it involves airplanes, shipping those duffle bags a week early by UPS, and the inevitable plaints about how everyone else’s parents are coming to visit but you guys aren’t (because we’re, like, sending you away, and we can’t afford to send us away, too, sweetie).
So why, if it’s expensive and a complex process, do we keep doing it? There’s the tradition aspect of it all, of course: there’s something kind of cool about the fact that my kid can go into one of the cabins that her dad helped build, and find his 13-year-old-boy autograph scrawled on one of the joists; or her aunt’s name written on the wall of the drama barn, or her sister’s inked somewhere else. Killroy has nothing on the kids of Killooleet. There’s also the various skills and pleasures she gets out of it; this year she’s improving her work on the pottery wheel, taking a role in the musical, and training for her Level 6 Swim card (the precursor to Junior Lifeguard, I’m told). Playing softball (and getting hit in the head by a line drive) and participating in the this-isn’t-a-tradition-we-just-do-it-every-year rites of the camp.
And no one does esprit de corps like the kids at this camp. Years later the parents who are also alumni meet at Grants’ Tomb as if they themselves only got off the camp bus last year.
People on the west coast, where summer-long camp is a rarity, look at me in horror when I tell them my daughter is in Ontario summer camps for eight weeks. But, having sent her to a bunch of 1 and 2-week Girl Scout camps the summer before she started at Killooleet, I can tell you, the start-and-stop routine is harder on a kid. Just when they’re getting over homesickness and settling in, *BAM*, back home again. At an eight week camp the kids master the homesickness, build bonds, start heading toward autonomy. I used to say sending a kid to camp was a little like sending away a bar of soap and getting it back at summer’s end with some of the child-part whittled away, revealing the physical and mental shape of the adult that’s coming.
But really, what I love, having spent my camp-less summers in the Berkshire mountains, is to think of my girl in all that deep, redolent green. Even if she is getting hit in the head with a softball.
Madeleine Robins blogs at Book View Cafe every 7th and 21st of the month. A graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, her story “La Vie en Ronde” is this week’s Saturday Special. Madeleine also blogs at Running Air.