In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer. -Albert Camus
I just registered the girls for summer camp. Thinking of those hot days to come is my optimistic activity for surviving the bitter cold of January. Lately when I sit down to write, I end up writing about camp, which I think is also an unconscious way to warm up my thoughts a bit. I’m not a winter person, if you couldn’t tell. I never quite got the hang of skating and am terrified of skiing, so that leaves me to do lots of writing, reading, and knitting. Don’t get me wrong, I love those things, but I’d so much rather do them sitting in the sun, and there’s not much of that to go around right now.
Anyway, when I start down the road of a camp memory, I end up with lots to say. Camp is a wellspring of characters to draw from when writing a story. I think there is a good children’s story, perhaps an entire series even, about the learning experiences of camp. When William Zinsser said that writers are the custodians of memory, he was speaking about non-fiction; however, even fiction is drawn from memory, dispelling the notion that some fiction writers just conjure story and plot out of thin air.
As for exactly what I would write about camp, the bildungsroman speaks to me as a genre. While I found my teenage years to be such a difficult transition, on the plus side the characters are so clearly etched in my mind from that time in my life. For those who experienced it, camp contains universal images and experiences, regardless of the literal place you attended it. I don’t want to say much more for fear of extinguishing the flame of my idea, but on the other hand, sometimes it’s nice to float the thoughts by you guys first.
Did you go to camp? What kind of mental activities do you do to conjure your invincible summer? Maybe your stories can help warm me up too.
I’ve been trying to gain a deeper understanding of why cousins have been such an important part of my life, and I think I’ve come up with a possible answer. Kids are always trying to form stronger bonds with each other as friends, cutting into their palms to be “blood brothers.” With cousins, you are handed a peer with real blood ties. Regardless of how often you see each other, an immediate deeper bond is formed on that information alone. A barrier wall is torn down and boundaries of familiarity are crossed that haven’t been crossed before. Cousins provide us an opportunity to test the limits.
On a trip to visit family in Florida when I was about six years old, two of my male cousins and I ran around the outside of my great aunt’s house over and over again. She finally stopped us to ask what game we were playing, no doubt because we aggravated them by weaving in and out of the adults as we passed by. My cousin John, three years older than me, stopped and smiled at her and said just as sweet as pie, “We’re just playing tag.”
We were in fact not playing tag. The actual game may have been called something like “Chase Justine.” I didn’t stick around long enough to find out what was going to happen next when they finally caught up with me. I will always remember the feeling I had that day that the adults actually had no idea what we were up to and didn’t really seem to care. We were on our own, for better or worse.
My cousins helped me get into just enough trouble as a kid to feel like I didn’t need to push the boundaries more than I did. Whether it was shooting each other with Roman candles or BB guns, we had plenty of “near misses.” I still have a scar on my finger from when I took a steak knife to a Styrofoam cup while trying to make telephones with my cousin. Once again, I don’t remember the adults being more than slightly annoyed at us; they just bandaged the wound and went back to their conversation. Meanwhile, we went back to playing our intense games. As we grew, those games became full of grand schemes, one-upmanship, petty fights, and double dog dares.
I once heard adolescents compared to a flock of geese, and I love that analogy. Teenagers are a flock of awkward birds, forming groups and then disbanding again to crash-land with a buddy or two. Or as Jenny, the Bloggess, said of feminists, perhaps teenagers are more like bees, i.e. “they are adorable and fuzzy but people run away from them because they don’t understand that they just want to make things good.” And sometimes they sting you, which is really, really annoying.
When I was fourteen years old—in the summer of 1994—I became the principal hotshot of a gang comprised of my cousins. Our family gathers every summer at a reunion at Vogel State Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of north Georgia. I became co-chief of the gang with my cousin Clay; Clay and I took over due to a vehicular right of passage. Our cousin John, much the same as others who’d ruled before him, turned 16 and got a car. Suddenly, my cousins and I were lucky if we even saw him, let alone rely on him to dictate our operations. And so, the hive passed to us.
When it occurred to me at age fourteen that Clay and I had become leaders, I gave everyone around me ridiculous nicknames and insisted they answer only to these new monikers, “Freckles,” “Monkey,” and so on. In what could only be called a bid for status as sole Queen Bee, I even attempted to give Clay a nickname, “Spiffy,” which he promptly refused to adopt. The two of us held court with our trail of cousins behind us. We would hold impromptu arm wrestling matches or races across logs to see who was faster, stronger, or more agile.
Up to this point in my life, I had never been the leader of anything. But I knew instinctively that I needed to think of something that would keep their attention, should it start to wane. Thus, I determined what our next presidential act would be: obtain a token of worship.
I had seen the prize I desired early one day. My uncles lugged a huge cooler out onto the back porch of one of our rented cabins to prepare for a mid-afternoon party. It contained within it no less then eight varieties of beer in no less than 50 cans, and I knew they wouldn’t miss a few. I also knew the cans could squeeze easily between the porch railings and be slipped down to a co-conspirator waiting below. So, that’s just what we did. My memory is that we only took two beers. I have no idea what all the ages were of the cousins who accompanied us on our victory lap around the lake to consume the beer, but I’d like to tell you they were at least of the youngest European drinking age. In any case, a few sips of beer couldn’t hurt them, or so I told myself, and it solidified our place as pack leaders.
This year marks the seventh summer I’ve brought my own children to Vogel State Park to mingle with our cousins. I am finally able to see the adult’s side of the equation, which is that a week of family reunion constitutes one of the few times I’m able to ignore my children completely for several hours in a row. There is such beauty in this gathering of cousins, young and old, not the least of which is because we are learning from the mothers who came before us. I can count currently four generations of my family present around me at our reunion, and the elders pass down what they know to us so we don’t need to rediscover it on our own.
Witnessing my children’s raucous liberation from rules while experiencing my own liberation—from stress, worry, and guilt—is total parental bliss. It is a time when I get to be not mother, not wife, but just be myself. I revel in letting loose of my obligations and taking on some risk and adventure. While I know the general vicinity of my kids, I’m certainly not checking up minute-by-minute. I just hope enough adults are wandering about to give the kids the vague impression they are being watched. And they are being watched—mostly. In fact, we often watch each other’s children, as the lines between mothers blur into one amalgam mom. I’ll invite a young cousin to stay in our cabin for a sleepover with my girls, and I’ll braid her hair and teach her to play cards and cover her in sunscreen and bug spray. And when she somehow still manages to burn in the early morning playground sun, her mother and I will share but a brief shrug of apology before moving back into the herd of collective mothering.
There is a moment when we all tire of being together and caring for the group. We even have a name for such a feeling; to wit, when you are ready to go home, you’re “Vogeled out.” But the feeling doesn’t last for long. Decompress for a few hours with a glass of wine and a moment of silence, and you’re already game again to download the photos, share the best stories, and begin making plans for the next summer.
When you think back to your adolescence, what stands out as important to shaping who you became? What age was significant for your personal growth?
For me, it was thirteen. Thirteen was the age at which I went to China; the concrete floors, smog-laden air, and lack of access to basic services like trash removal and running water were lifestyles I had never imagined. To say the least, it was a life-altering experience that opened my eyes to how huge the world is and to how I lucky I was to have felt so little sorrow in my life. I remember reading a stack of Mark Twain books–Roughing It, among other selections of his work–on the day-long flights and falling in love with his writing during that trip.
A few years later, when I stepped off a plane in Phoenix en route to the Grand Canyon with my dad and experienced the heat of the desert for the first time, I remembered this passage from Roughing It:
“The sun beats down with dead, blistering, relentless malignity; the perspiration is welling from every pore in man and beast, but scarcely a sign of it finds its way to the surface–it is absorbed before it gets there; there is not the faintest breath of air stirring; there is not a merciful shred of cloud in all the brilliant firmament; there is not a living creature visible in any direction whither one searches the blank level that stretches its monotonous miles on every hand; there is not a sound–not a sigh–not a whisper–not a buzz, or a whir of wings, or distant pipe of bird–not even a sob from the lost souls that doubtless people that dead air.”
I knew when I read the prose above that I wanted both to read and write as much as I could about what I saw in my life. To be accurate, I should say my writing experience began just prior to discovering Mark Twain. As soon as I knew what the word diary meant I began keeping one. Thus, when I began my current writing journey, I chose to start typing memories from being thirteen because it stuck out as a significant age.
Thirteen was also the age at which my great grandmother, Elizabeth, had to stop going to school so she could work and add income to her family. What must that have been like for her to witness her older sister continue school and piano lessons while she slogged through work as a laundress? I cling to the knowledge that even after removed from the school she loved, Bessie never stopped reading, memorizing poetry and imaginative stories. I can picture her reading her sister’s schoolbooks up in her bedroom. I wonder what her favorite books were at that age. Who were her heroes? Did she keep a journal too?
I grew up adoring the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, but I never clung to them so much as when I was thirteen. A year after leaving the comfort of my childhood home, my elementary school, I had lost my sense of connection to the wild nature I had always known. Those years had been a magical time when I was free to enjoy the simple pleasures of life in whatever rhythm sprung from the day’s activities, and then suddenly I was thrust into the unfamiliar scene of lockers and cafeterias.
In the evenings after middle school let out, I sought a sanctuary in the world of books. I identified with and idolized characters like Laura, who was so connected to nature and in touch with the details of her life that were required for survival. And yet, she could at times be found playing with a blown-up pig’s bladder as a ball with her sisters; she straddled the line between maturity and childhood.
Who were the literary heroes of your adolescence? Fern from Charlotte’s Web and Jo from Little Women also offered great heroes for me; they were girls who saw within themselves a sense of otherness and had the courage to chase it instead of running from it.