Sleep-Away Camp’s Greatest Gift

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It’s the makings of countless best selling fiction novels; four friends from childhood who maintain their relationships through adulthood.  Without sounding contrite, my story is real. No fictional characters, no made up locations-just four girls who met before their teens and journeyed through life with the help of summer camp memories and experiences.  Last night those same four friends gathered together to share an evening. Four thirty-eight year old women who have been friends for more than half of our lives went to one of our childhood homes and were reminded once again of the meaning of friendship.

It was at Dorothy P. Flint 4H Camp on the Long Island Sound in Riverhead, NY that we all first met. An only child from West Hempstead, a Massapequa girl whose sister had introduced her to camp, a Jewish girl from Plainview trying out sleep-away for the first time and the daughter of the camp manager (from Hicksville) who after being born at the hospital down the road in the summer of ’74 had spent her life’s summers at camp. It was there that we learned about ourselves. It was there that we experienced so many ‘firsts’. And it was there, at camp, in countless cabins every summer that our friendship began and flourished.

For some Long Island children the last week of June meant the beginning of days at the local pool or playing games on their front lawn with the neighborhood kids. For us it was different. As school came to a close we looked forward to eight weeks together in wooden cabins with no electricity and no bathrooms in the bunks. We dreamt of bunk beds, giggle fests, council fires, friendship circles, co-eds, cabin nights, the 209 steps down to the rocky and sea-glass filled beach with the pungent smell of the sea and so many other exciting events. That last Sunday in June saw us all head in busses or cars past the end of the Long Island Expressway, through a round-a-bout and up to the entrance of camp off of Sound Avenue in Riverhead. Once inside the entrance gates, past the larger than life rocks with 4H Camp painted on them and up to the office we found counselors from around the world who greeted us with open arms and ever-present smiles. We weren’t just at camp-we were home.

I’ve always felt that all I needed to know in life I learned at sleep-away camp. Although it was difficult for my parents to let me go and send me to camp; it was one of their greatest gifts they could have ever given me. Camp is where my heart is. Camp is where I was able to be myself. Camp helped me grow and introduced me to people and things that life during September to June could have never offered. Camp gave me confidence, shared life’s lessons, taught me to swim and gave me three best friends who three years ago stood up at my wedding sharing in one of my biggest moments. Camp and those girls are a part of my heart and I can’t remember much of life without them in it.

After the hundreds of meals we have shared together and nights we have stayed up talking till dawn, last night was different. Last night felt somehow as if life had come full circle. Jill, whose oldest daughter is nine-years old, is now looking at sleep-away camp for next summer. As one of my oldest friends sat and regaled us with the visits and research of her past few weeks one comment stood out for me. Even though she, like many parents (including my own), may not be ready for her daughter to leave her for the summer-how could she resist giving her the opportunity to make life long friendships like she did. With a gleam in her eye she looked at each of us and said, ‘ how could I not give her this opportunity’?

Thirty years of friendship has given us stories aplenty, endless adventures (individually and together) and a plethora of memories.  We have been in each other’s lives as we’ve grown from child to adult. We have that special bond formed in our youth.  Shared experiences that lead us to finish each other’s stories and smile when one starts knowing exactly how it will end. Although we can recite the same songs and remember the same cabin nights on the beach; we have each taken a different path along life’s journey.

Four girls couldn’t be more different. Even at camp we signed up for different activities, liked different types of boys and had different favourite counselors. Throughout high school we knew that had we met through school we would never have been friends. That’s what camp does for children. Friendships that would never have a chance in the harsh world of middle school cliques and teenage judgment are able to not only develop but also thrive at camp. It didn’t matter if you were an academic, a sports-fanatic or the creative type. It didn’t matter what your religion was, where your upbringing took place or what category your family’s financial status fell into. What mattered was the person you were on the inside.  Your character mattered. The girls in your bunk/unit were with you on all days and at all times.  Break ups, break outs, your first period, when your parents couldn’t come on visiting day, homesickness, nightmares, your first try at something new, achievements and disappointments.  These were the people who saw you when you woke up, in your ratty old sweatshirts and your favourite pajamas. There was no putting on a show or phony smile. They saw you when you were at your best and sometimes even at your worst. These friends were different.

Jill grew up in Massapequa. It was at her house that I learned I liked mint chocolate chip ice cream, cheese Pringles and many other foods that weren’t in my own house. It would be impossible to count how many times I went shopping in her closet and how many outfits were borrowed. We spent countless weekends at her family’s summer home in Long Island’s east end and shared in many family gatherings. I always felt like part of the family.  After graduating from SUNY Cortland, Jill became an elementary school teacher. Her dreams as a young girl were to be a mother and a teacher and she accomplished both of them. Her kind heart and even temperament was a perfect match for the young students in her classroom. She was the first of the four of us to get married, buy a house and have kids. She and her husband Jeffrey are on their second home where they live with their lovable dog and three beautiful children.

Then there’s Erin. She is the daughter of the camp manager and director of the girl’s camp and spent her whole childhood at camp. She has the gentlest spirit and biggest heart of anyone I know. Erin is an old soul. She’s what my mom refers to as salt of the earth kind of person-just the best kind of people. One who if she had almost nothing would still try to give you everything. She is creative, crafty, loves all things camp and is my go to person on anything and everything found in the outdoors. When her parents (who treated all of us as if we were their own children) divorced in our early teenage years it was very difficult. That was probably the first big event of our friendship and even as young girls we were there for our friend. Erin too used her knowledge and skills from camp and became a teacher. She bought her grandparent’s house just one-half hour from camp and lives happily with her partner (an artist in his own right), Rob. They both commute over three hours each day to enrich the lives of students in East New York and as a side note, they have the most amazing garden and a fire pit in the backyard to have s’mores whenever they please.

Jackie (now known as Jacqueline) probably took the most non-traditional route of all of us. In high school she used her eloquent voice and strong mind to win many competitions on the debate team. An only child to wonderful parents, she went on many interesting family trips abroad, which fed her adventurous spirit. After graduating Boston University with a master’s degree in biomedicine she changed direction a few times going into public relations and exciting other business ventures. She is the friend that everyone should have in her life. She pushes you to see the best in yourself, she is well traveled, a risk-taker and the truest of friends. She lived in New York and California before moving to Hong Kong on business. She has been there for the past twelve years where she shares a business and an apartment with her vivacious husband William (a renown British photographer) and their two phenomenal children (one of whom is my godson).

And then there’s me. The little Jewish girl, who went to Brandeis University and after a year of indecisiveness, went into teaching.  I took camp with me and continued to work at day camps as a lifeguard and later swim director for over twenty years. I have a creative spirit, a love of all things scrapbook & travel, and if I could spend the rest of my life in a sarong and my toes in the sand at the beach I’d be a very happy girl. After cultivating a love of travel I met my Australian born husband, Mathew, on a trip to New Zealand and had an international courtship that spanned three continents and countless holiday adventures for over four years. We married in a beach ceremony in New York and then traveled the world for a year where we journeyed to over twenty countries on five continents and spent some time living in Australia. At the moment we live in a studio apartment on the ocean in Long Beach, NY where we are planning our next adventure to go back to Africa.

Our lives have taken different directions but our relationship began and is grounded in that shared past at camp. Those memories of meals in the lodge, the quest for honour cabin and searching for shooting stars in the dark night sky bring smiles to our faces on each occasion we get together. As in all relationships, through thirty years there have been ups and downs but through the good and the bad we have been there for each other. In our lives we have experienced divorce, parental disease and sadly death, the beauty of children, long distance travel and relationships, moves, boyfriends, husbands and life-lessons.

Those campers, counselors and staff who remember one of us, remember all of us. They know that Jackie and Jill shared a love of horses and spent hours at equitation. They recall that Erin couldn’t get enough of farm and the outdoors and that the two of us loved any arts and crafts classes that we took. And some of them were there when Jackie, Erin and I who all adored the beach wound up as lifeguards at camp at one time or another. Years after we all left camp when we’ve met up with any alumni they ask one of us about the other three. We knew at an early age that we’d be good friends and true camp friends, but it is in our adulthood that we have learned just how precious and rare our friendship is.

There have been phone calls, emails, texts, letters and skype dates that could be yearly or daily and the conversation would be the same. We are that true testament to neither time nor distance knowing no boundaries. In our youth we made s’mores on the beach, raided boys camp, shared birthdays, experienced firsts together and had countless reunions and slumber parties. Although the reunions may be less frequent now they are still spent with the laughter that makes your belly ache, snacks aplenty and a feeling of a life long bond that started at camp. Our conversations now are centered on the present but our ability to continue those chats began on that Riverhead sea front property.

Last night was another sleepover (this time with little ones asleep upstairs) that had us up late gabbing about anything and nothing at all and enjoying the company and comfort of old friends. Old friends, who can finish each other’s thoughts, share the same memories and will all still pile into the same queen size bed together talking until we talk ourselves to sleep. Just past midnight, Jill fell asleep resting easily knowing that although she might miss her daughter for seven weeks next summer; thirty years from now Allyson just might be up late giggling with her best friends from the sleep-away camp her mom and dad sent her to all those years ago.  Then another generation would get to experience the greatest gift of sleep-away camp…life long friendship.

THE END

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3 responses »

  1. Hey Stacey. Stumbled on to this page while looking for something else. Looked interesting so I read it. What a beautiful story of friendship and growing up. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Pingback: Summer Home | The Gift of Travel

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