Saturday, September 1, 2018

Camp HamFam

We finally got it just right this year, and we all know it the moment we step inside the old red farmhouse, carrying our bulging suitcases up the staircase, dropping our grocery bags off on the way. The kitchen is large, spacious, a long counter sprawling over shelves stocked with enough pans and serving platters for a party of 22. Our party. Our week long party. For 22. Twelve grown-ups, ten kids. There are four tables in the kitchen and we immediately designate one of them the craft table.

Over the week, the craft table will become buried in uncapped markers, computer paper spread wide, beads that will roll to the floor and burrow into the bottoms of our bare feet. Blank masks are brought to life as the days roll along - a cheetah, a monkey, a phoenix. If you clear the space just a bit, you might see some (washable) purple lines streaking across the plastic tablecloth underneath, a quiet attempt to mark a territory in a sea of ten sets of arms and eyes, all seeking their spot and the very best of the crafting loot. This summer, in our big red vacation farmhouse, rainbow looming becomes all the hype again. Roan, one of the oldest of the kids, has two wrists full of them by the end of the second day.

It is our seventh year of this. Some parts of it we have down to a science, and some things we have to adjust, every year, because the setting is always new, the children keep growing, and the accumulation of stories from our past year have changed each one of us in subtle ways from the year before. This past year, one of us lost a parent. One of us got a new job. Emily, the youngest in the group, became a kid, not a baby. She is over three now. Soon, she will be able to remember these trips. The kids are getting older.

But right now? Ages three to nine, they are the embodiment of childhood. Still, we can dress them all in matching pajamas and place them on a bench or a couch while Uncle John pulls the top of his shirt over his head and jumps around like a monkey to ensure smiles for the photograph. Every year, they laugh at the lunacy of John. We all do. 


other years


Still, we never take our eyes off the lake while they swim or row, carefree, looking for flowers growing on lily pads and fish that are brave enough to venture close to the water's surface. 

Still, they stand tall, shoulders pulled back, chins up, as Auntie Beth presents them with Olympic style awards at the end of the week for their individual performances in such events as swimming, canoeing, kayaking, obstacle coursing, and theatre. 


2016 Olympics

This year, Beth includes the category of Entomology for the kids who have spent the week pointing out interesting, scary, and beautiful insects. Grace gets a gold medal in this category. Oliver scores a goal against the big kids and wins a rugby game for the younger kids team. Gold for Oliver. Little Jon catches a fish. Gold. Beth has a gift for recognizing other people's gifts. Every kid has their specialties and she sees them, acknowledges them. It is these sorts of assurances that help shape who we are, as children and, as I find to this day, as grownups. I cannot help but wholeheartedly believe that.

Years ago, maybe something like 10 years ago, I listened to a two part episode called Notes on Camp on This American Life. Ira Glass interviewed a number of kid campers while they were at summer camp and the message was consistent. Nobody at home has exactly what I have here at camp. It's mine to own. Having never been a camper myself (except for when I went to Space Camp and spent the whole time missing my mom so much I couldn't function... but that is for another post), I was struck by how charmed I was. If I'd been a different sort of kid, a kid who didn't fall apart in unfamiliarity, maybe summer camp would have done me some good. But over the past seven years, I've learned that it's never too late to start going to camp. 

Every summer, my close group of Hamilton friends (and their spouses, and their kids, if they have them) pack up parts of our lives, leave as much work as we can at home, and find ourselves at our version of camp. Family Camp. HamFamCamp. Camp Ham Fam? I think of it as sacred in a way, and I worry, even, that writing about it threatens the ineffable experience of it. And yet I know that as the year goes on, this post, along with the pictures and props we gathered that week, will be folded into the memories of another another summer trip, and next year will be new again.

 Most years, there is a family or two that can't make it; sometimes families move to Tampa (!) and can't get back to New England. Or they live in Indiana which is a damn long drive to do every year. Sometimes, work keeps us back. But every year, Camp Ham Fam will wait up ahead, the end of a year, the beginning of another. It is late August, and school starts in a week or two.

The setting is lovely. The people are better. Moments feel like vignettes telling a larger, layered story. Kevin walks 9 year old Noah through scenarios on the Chess board that Noah hasn't seen. Noah is not his child, but he sits with him for hours over the course of the week, teaching him strategies, engaging in game after game. Noah ties him once. It is his great victory.

Chris teaches the kids how to fish. John (husband) and Cat swim across the entire lake and then turn around and do it again. I do not know how they do this. It is crazy to me.

Alex directs the Wind in the Willows play that the kids put on for the talent show. He plays ukelele in the background while the kids, decorated in face paint and costumes they've worked on all afternoon, recite their lines with no outside help. Atticus, age 5, performs in the play and then shows us his own ukelele skills as part of the talent show.

There is a perfect desk in the house for ticket selling. Charlotte makes the tickets and passes them out. She assigns Grace to collect them at the door.

Chris and Ryan and Amy and Lynne and Dylan and I hover around a puzzle at the beginning of the week and then again at the end. Two 500 piece monotone colored puzzles in one week. Complete. It is the most satisfied I've felt in ages.

Meghan sits with a swarm of kids and teaches them Dogopoly. Surely, it's not as long as the real Monopoly? I ask. Oh, it's the same thing, she tells me. But with dogs. She, the banker and direction-giver-outer, smiles warmly, patiently, and leads the little ones along through the game that doesn't end. 

At night, there is Capture the Flag and Kick the Can (kids vs grown-ups, obvi) and there is a campfire, where we hold the littlest kids back while they try and get closer and closer to the fire that is turning their marshmallows black. They play night tag on the lawn, where glow stick bracelets light their way.

We splinter off later to our separate spaces, for books and bed prep. Some of the kids wear the matching jammies each night. Grace sleeps in the clothes she will wear the next day. But she always does that. Some kids get picture books, but Bea and Charlotte and Noah and Grace are the older kids now, and instead we read a chapter of a novel each night.

Most of us have known each other for over half our lives now. We met at 18, 19. We are not that old, but we've been through some things. Our lives are good, imperfect. Years and years of school (them, not me), apartment moves that have now lessened in frequency, pregnancies, babies, kids, surgeries, job changes, weddings, funerals. Many of us have already lost a parent. 

Our hair is streaked with a little more white than it once was. We obsess over sunscreen, drenching our children in it now, trying to save their skin from what we now see on our own. Staying up until midnight is hard to bounce back from. And yet. We are fine with that; it is funny. It is how it should be. We see so little of one another, our daily lives consumed by one action feeding off the next. But we have this. We have this thing that we do, this camp we've created, where Kick the Can comes alive again, and we are reminded that these friends are actually family. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

On Becoming A Dog Person (Happy First Birthday, sweet Duncan)

"If he wasn't a dog, I'd marry him," says my new neighbor friend of her eight year old dog. We often cross paths on our morning walks these days.

I don't look at her cross-eyed or consider she might be a little crazy.

"I get it," I said. "He'd totally make a great husband."

Yeah, man. I'm a dog person now.

It took a few weeks; it took about a summer. I loved him right away, but he kind of ruined our summer last year, in the endearing way that infants ruin our lives while at the same time making us feel like the luckiest people on the damn planet. So, no sleeping in, no sleeping more than four hours in a row.

"I'm exhausted," I wrote to my friend after the first night, "what have I done?"

"It will get better once your milk comes in," she responded.

We spent the summer jumping from one piece of furniture to the other in order to avoid the jaws of our tiny velociraptor. We didn't leave the house for more than two hours at a time. We chased him through the woods when he managed to escape out the front door. We cleaned up urine from our house 15 times a day. I kept asking my friends who I knew would be honest whether or not I smelled like a dog.

Oh, God. What had I done?

"I'm... sorry about... all this," I said one night to John in tears, as I watched his normally steady patience unravel. We were tired. And our skin hurt from sharp puppy bites.

Ah, newborns. Thankfully, they get older at some point. Even more thankfully, dogs mature at the rate of 7 dog years per one human year.  By that logic, at four months, he was well over two years old, and that is just about when we hit we our stride.

And, ohhhhhh, did we. I am smitten.

Duncan. With the big brown eyes that tell you everything you need to know. Sweet Duncan Swing Biscuit. With the tiny Harry Potter lightening bolt right above his nose. With the silky brown ears that flop to the side when happy and shoot back when alarmed. Duncan with the torso that just doesn't end and the legs that end a little too soon. With the tail that curls up high in the air, except when he's in the car, where he hides it between his legs as he rests his head on my shoulder, leaning in as much as he can without falling over. Sometimes, he leaps into the back seat and sits on Noah's lap, refusing to budge.

Duncan. Duncaccino. Duncadoo. Dunky. Little brother. I've also occasionally referred to him as the great love of my life. His favorite person is not me - it's John (is it because he's a little more hard-to-get?? WHY???). But still, STILL, I am in love. Partially requited love.


I confessed to our dog daycare trainers a couple weeks ago that I think I'm actually in love with my dog. They looked at me as if waiting for the rest of the story. Because of course. Of course. It's not just love. It's in love. That's what it's like.

And what about him? What makes Dunc's heart sing (besides John)?

He loves: belly rubs, snow, morning sun, chasing squirrels, dog daycare, dogs, playing chase, peanut butter, chicken, nighttime on the couch, cool floors on hot days, daddy coming home from work, "his" recliner in the sun room, treat cabinet, stuffed animals with squeaks, stuffed animals without squeaks, vegetables.

He tolerates: runs with mama, car rides, hugs, small children hovering around him, wearing princess capes, dog food, parents sleeping in.

He despises and/or fears: wearing hats or coats, fruit, being left behind, eye contact, baths, vacuum cleaners, anything out of order in his usual spots.

Back before I was a dog person, I remember watching people throwing sticks with their dogs. I would think, "That's lovely, really. But it does look kind of boring. You go to the park... to throw a stick back and forth to your non-talking companion?"

You know what I'm saying, non dog-person people. This post, all about dogs, is the written equivalent of that feeling. Dogs are fine, you think, but how interesting can they be? Why waste my time thinking or reading about them? I mean, are you even still reading? Truly, I would understand if not!

Back in my 20s, one of my dear friends and roommates used to come home and report about various dog sightings she'd had or fill us in on what was going on at the animal rescue league where she volunteered. I loved how much she loved dogs and I treasured the stories she told about them, but I could not picture myself thinking about a dog when it wasn't right in front of me.

Things change. This equation is perhaps one of the most simple and predictable truths of our crazy universe.

Non dog person + Dog = Dog person forever

By Grace

Think of a dog as a person minus almost all the annoyances.

They do not pretend to be anyone they are not. They are clear about their wants and needs. They do not judge. They do not gossip. They eat what you put in front of them. They clean themselves, for the most part. They find joy in the simplest things - a game of chase, a ball, dirt, grass. They are pumped every time you come home (it is the greatest greeting imaginable). They'll watch whatever you want to watch. They don't give two shits what you look like; they just love you. They love you like a person who really loves you loves you, with no strings attached whatsoever. That's their entire agenda. That's huge. Oh, the breakups a dog could have gotten me through once upon a time.

People want to wait to get their dog. Wait until the kids are older. Wait for summer. Wait for the perfect set of dog parents to breed. There are so many reasons to wait. But there are several reasons not to wait as well.

My fellow dog-loving, dog-owning friend and I recently had a discussion about why we waited and how we would never wait again.

"I mean, it would have been really nice to have my dog by my side during all those lonely maternity leave days," she said.

I agreed. "What would I have done the day Grace went to Kindergarten and the house was entirely empty this past Fall?"

They aren't always the most convenient or clean or quiet little creatures, but they are joy and comfort and laughter. They are fulfilling. I wanted a third kid. It was not to be. I got this little boy in place of my third kid, and now all I can think is how I never want him to die. We're a family of five now. Grace plays with him the yard for hours at a time. Noah gets up with him on Saturdays and feeds him, let's him out. They take good care of their brother. He cries when they leave. He calls out after them.

I have only had this one dog, so I don't know if these are things all dogs do, but here are things that delight me.

He is afraid of earth worms. As in, he'll be digging and come upon a worm and freak the hell out. I decorated the sunroom this weekend for his birthday and he literally crawled into the room, tummy to floor, in fear that the decorations were going to attack him. He buries himself under a comforter on our bedroom floor every night and when you ask for him to get up, you can just see the slightest movements in the comforter as he makes his way out of his little tunnel. He emerges and it's the sweetest little face and it's all so darn innocent. If you so much as lean forward on the couch and he is sitting next to you, goodbye to your seat; he's squeezing in there.

He hardly ever barks. Really, he only barks when he sees kids playing in yards around us while he is inside. Or if he is excited. I mean, truly, if he's standing outside in the pouring, freezing rain and you have forgotten you let him out 20 minutes before, he'll just stand there, politely waiting for you to remember him.

Sometimes, he talks to us. I cannot possibly capture it, but it is somewhere between a howl, a yawn, a whine and a toddler voice, and it is used to convey his extreme desire for the thing he wants to happen to actually happen. He might talk to me while sitting next to the treat cabinet and then actually nod his little head to the cabinet. Treat, mama, please, a treat, please! Or walks. He'll talk for a walk.

This is a simple post about an uncomplicated notion. Freaking dogs, man. If you are single, I say marry one. They won't let you down. If you are grieving, get one. They will fill something inside you. If something feels like it's missing, consider rescuing a dog. It may be your answer. It was ours.

Happy First Birthday, little Duncan. You've made my life complete.

(But please, my friends - seriously. If I start to smell like a dog, tell me.)