I had lunch today with a woman who was a camper of mine 35+ years ago (yeah, makes my mouth drop open too). She ‘found’ me on Facebook, which had a small cascading effect of other people who remembered me from my days as a camp counselor. The exchange of memories is arguably a topic in and of itself – how some remember so acutely, while others remember through a murkier lens. But to go there, is to digress dramatically from where I think I want to go (and anyone who reads this blog knows that I have a flair for tangential thought – oh look! A chicken!)
I recognized her immediately – she is no longer a little girl, yet the features of the little girl I thoroughly loved for multiple summers remain the same. Love. I loved these girls for eight weeks every summer for years – from the time I was 15 through my freshman year in college (sophomore? – I’m one of those murky lens people). These summers informed so much of my personal and professional narrative – the good and the less-than-good.
Summer camps sell dreams for kids – and perhaps even more so for their parents. Eight weeks out of the city, sylvan settings (outside of the bunks that is – ‘pristine’ is not the adjective that comes to mind while girls throw wet towels on the floor rushing to get enough hair dryer time before short circuiting the system) instant camaraderie, songs, playful athletic competition, instruction in gazillion sports, kids walking arm in arm in that “Laverne & Shirley” way. To a large extent, it’s all accurate. What isn’t mentioned is that each child – boy or girl – is entering this fantasy land already toting some of the emotional luggage they are going to carry for the rest of their lives. And that makes the experience remarkably unique for each person as well as remarkably similar.
I was not popular with people my age. Don’t misunderstand – I was well-known, I was ‘ok’, but I was never going to be cool enough to hang with the people in my peer group. My saving graces included singing, being really committed to the kids and not pushing the social limits of a system I didn’t fully understand. I’d sneak cigarettes behind the bunks with one girl, keep the secrets of a lot of people and outwardly accept that I was available at the behest of anyone who needed to talk. As much as I loved those kids, I remember feeling pretty lonely most of the time and looked forward to being “On Duty” at night, for that way I didn’t have to go up to the canteen and realize that while people were in various stages of hooking up, I’d have no one to talk to.
There’s the backdrop – metaphorically great weather but for when the rains of adolescence pounded my skin. And here’s the gift of the epilogue – I sat with one of my ‘campers’ who is now a peer. I could have talked with her for hours. She is an amazing human being, with a full and colorful life, enormous talent and an adored partner. And her memories of me were of how much I cared, the perception she and others share that I was ‘there’ for those kids and that my presence was genuine. She never saw my bungling and awkwardness – how could she? Though I was convinced everyone saw my clumsy efforts at inclusion, she viewed me through the filter of her little girl vulnerabilities and insecurities – and she felt love. I have said before that we don’t see ourselves as others do. What a gift it is when others see you with far kinder eyes than you could ever imagine yourself. I think that is the beauty of ‘old love’ – it doesn’t try to impress, it doesn’t hyperventilate at the mention of a name. Old love graces you with an air-brushed portrait of your best self. It is comfortable with who you are, because it is so sure of who you were – and the distinction between the two are not as stark as you think. I love L for giving me that today. Old love – I think I’ll take it.