By Gregory Keer
At the beginning of kindergarten, Benjamin decorated a giant folder for his weekly schoolwork. When he brought it home, we deciphered a stick figure on a mountaintop, wearing what looked like a deployed parachute. Was it a scene from a Spy Kids flick or a G.I. Joe I-Can-Read book?
“It’s a picture of Mommy jumping off the cliff at family camp,” Benjamin proudly explained.
Yes, Wendy and I burst out laughing. Yes, we explained that, when Mommy went paragliding (hang-gliding with a parachute), she was clipped to an instructor with lots of safety equipment. And, yes, we can’t wait to return to family camp.
Two years ago, we attended our first session at a mountain facility run by the university my wife and I attended. Going in, I was skeptical. I am not a camper. Even the word “rustic” makes my eyes itch and my dreams fill with marauding bears.
But I was pleasantly surprised. The accommodations were civilized mini-condos (though without air conditioning, phones, or TVs) and the meals were sophisticated. I also found the grounds breathtaking, the staff amazing (made up largely of college students), and the activities diverse enough to rival a luxury cruise.
Best of all was the socializing. Benjamin spent much of his day with his Teddy Bear group, creating art, swimming, and hiking with counselors who seemed like in-person versions of Disney’s Out of the Box show. Wendy and I had our challenges with one-year-old Jacob — who was either napping or crawling toward danger — but enjoyed meals and sports with grown-ups happy to leave busy schedules at home.
The only element missing was something most of the other people enjoyed — familiarity. The beauty of this idyllic camp is that families return, year after year, to have fun and grow together, creating memories around the consistent surroundings.
So, in the year of Mommy’s Great Role-Model Stunt, we returned to build a tradition. This time, we were joined by my childhood buddy, Eric, his wife Nancy, and their three kids, who loved the extra time with my sons.
Benjamin had the grandest experience of our bunch, loving every minute of his days in the Cubs group. He soaked up the sun and information ranging from Native American culture to tie-dye shirts. Often, he was the loudest singer, leading his friends in spontaneous camp medleys at the pool, the veins popping from his neck as he shouted, “We Are the Cubbies, the Mighty, Mighty Cubbies!” He learned a few questionable tricks, too, such as shooting slingshots at lizards and filching cubes from the ice machine to dump down people’s shirts.
Then there’s the subject of independence. Because the camp is secluded and full of families, the place feels as safe as a 1950s country farm. So, many of the kids scoot about the grounds without supervision.
Encouraged by his 6-year-old friends, Benjamin (then 5), decided to walk himself to his group about midway through the week. At mealtimes, he started grabbing his own meals from the buffet and sitting with his friends’ families.
While we had often wished for moments of reprieve from parental responsibility, we were short of breath at the thought that our little boy didn’t need us as escorts, let alone companions. We wanted our baby back, though we were proud that his confidence was rising.
For his part, Jacob became the camp charmer. He’d run around this expansive lawn, where all the kids played, asking, “What’s your name?” Everywhere else Jacob went, his grinning, dirt-smudged face became famous. So, when he’d run off, and we’d panic, “Where’d he go now?” we had a team of friendly detectives that never failed us.
Wendy and I had a few opportunities for grown-up adventures, like flying on a zip line, playing inner-tube water polo, and jumping off that cliff. Still, the moments of true joy were the ones we all spent together. We sat on blankets under a starry sky, watching a movie on the lawn. We snuggled with the kids for a boat ride around the lake. And we competed in egg tossing and watermelon eating contests at the week’s finale.
We will return to family camp this summer. Maybe we’ll do this for the next 20 years, like some of the families we’ve met up there. I think much of the draw for the adults is the chance to finally be that proverbial fly on the wall. Occasionally, I wish I could spy on my kids at their classrooms or playdates, to see them unfettered by my influence. With family camp, I get to see my kids at all hours of the day — with no deadlines to distract me or homework for them to do — to witness how they socialize, laugh, run, and sing.
While I still find it bittersweet to watch my sons get more independent, I’m thankful for the gift that one week a year gives to me, of seeing them grow. One day, my sons will be old enough to decide about jumping from cliffs. With the benefit of years watching them mature, I think I’ll be ready to trust they can fly on their own.