Panhandling: Life Lessons from Summer Camp
Learning, the hard way, to embrace the outdoors (thanks Mom!)
In 1987, I told myself sleepaway camp was a good idea for our daughter, Garrett, then only 9 years old. No matter that the quiet child never spent the night at a sleepover and didn’t even like playing outdoors. She was a girlie girl who liked air conditioning and Barbie dolls. She was nothing like her 5-year-old sister, Sara, who loved getting dirty. They were opposites in every way: night and day; poodle and retriever; chocolate and vanilla.
“I’m not going. I’ll hate it!” Garrett screamed. “Please don’t sign me up, Mom.”
“Too late, precious. I already did. Besides, you can’t hate something you’ve never tried. Everybody loves camp.”
I leaned in to kiss her left cheek as she pulled away.
“Did you?” she asked. I answered with a smile and wink.
A CHANGE OF HEART
The theme for camp was Fun, Fitness and Fashion. It couldn’t get any better for someone who loved flipping through fashion and decor magazines and making collages from her scissor cuttings. The creative juice ran straight from her body to the No. 2 pencil outlining her sketched designs.
In truth, my worn-out words of encouragement had exhausted me.
“Once we get your trunk, you can decorate it with magazine clippings. That’ll be fun,” I coaxed.
Courtney and Mary Heather, her best friends, were also signed up. They were triple whiners sabotaging each other.
“I have an idea. Invite Courtney and Mary Heather to spend the night. I’ll order pizza and rent a movie,” I said, digging in the refrigerator for a bottle of chardonnay.
Later, I pulled out of the Blockbuster Video parking lot with The Parent Trap starring Hayley Mills, the original released in 1961. The setting was a summer camp with twin sisters who meet for the first time, then decide to get their divorced parents back together.
I’d seen the film as a child and remembered it made summer camp look fabulous. I felt confident Hayley could pick up where my mouth left off. That old cliche, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” ran through my overwrought brain.
Hayley Mills worked her twin magic. By the next day, all three girls were excited. But I’d gone through a lot of work for one measly week of camp.
I began the preparation following movie night. Goodwill rewarded me by having the perfect trunk. Garrett decorated the sucker to almost cute. We went shopping for fresh fashions, then lined the decorated trunk with new summer frocks. I headed to Walgreens and filled up her Caboodle—a popular accessory container—with delicious-smelling Finesse shampoo and conditioner. I purchased a Le Clic pocket-size camera, some scented stationary, two ChapSticks and a couple sheets of stickers.
INTO THE WILD
Finally, her departure day arrived. I laid her pillow and blankie (the one she still sleeps with—shh!) inside and clamped the trunk shut.
It was blazing hot that July day. I watched with trepidation as my husband Boone loaded her trunk and the four of us—Boone, Garrett, Sara and I—climbed inside the Oldsmobile. I wasted no time with peppy, nonsense blabbering.
“You’re so lucky, I wish I could go to camp for a week,” I squealed over the radio. I looked back to see Garrett in the backseat sitting on her anxious hands with both eyes actively twitching.
The camp was in the country off Route 20. The first thing I saw when we pulled into the parking lot was a seven-foot rattlesnake crossing the steamy asphalt. It was spitting distance from our car.
Hayley Mills had a cabin; Garrett had a tent in the middle of Nowhere, Florida. She had dirty wood floors and mosquito nets over a slim, thin, stained cot. The bathhouse was outside where, I was confident, more rattlesnakes slept.
“Jody, it’s Girl Scout camp, not a kidnapping,” I replied.
There was no fan in sight and little room for the decorated trunk filled with adorable clothes. Stifling, Boone began reorganizing the space to fit her trunk as pools of sweat poured from his brow.
The counselor, Peaches, was delightful, cheerful and helpful, although I could have braided the hair hanging beneath her armpits. I cried with guilt all the way home.
“She’ll be fine,” Boone said, gripping my restless hand.
Her first letter arrived two days later. I’m begging you please pick me up. The next day another. I’m sick on a cot in the clinic. I called to check on her and learned she was pretending so they would send her home.
Their first outing was by van to a hair school to watch the students train. The next was a “fashion” excursion to Gayfers at the Tallahassee Mall. That was when Garrett spotted someone she knew and bolted.
“Help me, Mrs. Elliott!” she begged, sobbing and clinging. “Call my mother.”
Jody used the pay phone inside the store and called. I answered after the third ring. I listened as Jody recapped the saga of my hysterical drama queen.
“I think you should pick her up, Prissy,” my friend urged.
“Jody, it’s Girl Scout camp, not a kidnapping,” I replied.
It was a parent’s conundrum, a nightmare, of a sort. Should I rescue the homesick child or use the experience to teach her how to make the best from the worst? I wanted to rescue her, I did. After all, she was only 3 miles away. But I told myself she would always believe quitting was an option when times were tough.
It was a difficult choice, a memorable moment, and one of life’s great lessons—for both of us. With only three days left at camp I made the choice for her to stay. She claims she’s still mad about my decision. But I’d like to believe the experience taught her to circle the arena, find the positive and not focus on the negative in life.
After returning to camp from her failed rescue attempt Garrett discovered the fitness portion of Fun, Fitness and Fashion camp. And that was found in the great outdoors and turned out to be an enriching experience. They would hike the woodsy paths strewn with sunning turtles as dragonflies danced above in the cerulean blue sky. Lizards scampered around the beaten dirt path as the guide pointed out wild pennyroyal, longleaf pines and cabbage palms. The girls observed colorful butterflies as they fluttered around thriving wildflowers. The butterflies didn’t mind the heat and humidity, so why should they? Their afternoons were spent swimming, giggling and cooling off in the pool, the only place mosquitoes stopped feasting on their already-chewed-up skin.
There would be other summer camps for my two daughters. A North Carolina Christian camp came later. Garrett wrote, Mom, tell Dad I want to be a Baptist. I’m never going back to the Episcopal Church.
Sara’s drama in North Carolina rivaled even Garrett’s. She kept threatening to run away, and the camp staff believed her. The cabin counselor grew weary of dragging her cot against the cabin door to keep Sara inside each night.
“We’ve never had someone this homesick. Please pick her up,” the lady said when I answered the phone. It wasn’t a suggestion but an order. So, I did.
Years later, as a junior at Florida State University, Sara elected to go on the London program with nine of her sorority sisters. I was confident she’d outgrown her anxiety about being away from home by then. Still, I called the morning she landed at Heathrow airport to check on her safe arrival.
“That’s normal, honey. You will definitely be better by tomorrow.” I felt the familiar pang in my stomach.
Early the next morning, I called to recheck on my jet-bounder. I was told she was already on a flight back. After hanging up with me she called my mother. Softer than me, her grandmother purchased a return ticket. Sara lasted less than 24 hours abroad.
It would be years before either of my daughters learned the truth about me. I never went to summer camp. My mother didn’t make me, and she didn’t care if I hung around playing Barbies and coloring. I was the indoor type, just like her.
Both my sisters—Deborah and Gina—went to camp. Gina was only 7 when they shipped her to North Carolina. We still have her letter of intent. Come get me, or else I will jump off the mountain.
My parents didn’t. Gina didn’t jump.
There are so many rules and suggestions when it comes to parenting our young children, teenagers and adult children. And so many ways to fail. We just do our best and hope it works.
Both my daughters remain homebodies to this day. They are drawn to their roots. But they also learned how to survive the perils of life, from the smallest (homesickness at sleepaway camp) to the monumental—the unexpected and tragic loss of a father. I’ve learned we are all stronger than we know. And we keep on.
As a memoirist, I’ve discovered another truth. For everything I did wrong in my life—and trust me, I did—somehow, someway, I did something right as a parent to two beautiful human beings.