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.