Larger-Than-Life Lessons From Summer Camp

E. Louise

I dig summer camp. I always have, though I never went as a kid. Despite my tearful petitions and mailing away for one swimming-fishing-Parent Trap camp brochure after another, my parents failed to see the value of hauling me all over the South to find a "new outside.” To them, the outside we had—the flat, sweltering, pine forests of North Florida—would do just fine.


I did work at a summer camp once. Down the road from my house, it was a 4-H day camp that taught environmentally friendly principles to kids. Being the early '90s, you could say it was ahead of its time. Maybe too far ahead, considering our weekly field trips were to the local landfill. Every Thursday, our big yellow bus would pull up to the New River Waste Management Facility—it was great, if you like trash. We’d perch right there on a scenic overlook (atop the fill dirt) to watch the garbage and pass out peanut butter granola bars in the 100-degree heat.  


Spoiler alert: The summer camp I went to last week was SO much better.


Some 20 years after my tours of county waste, my whole family meets along the banks of Lake Ontario. We do it every three or four years.


(The lake when it was quiet—before everyone got there.)


Upstate New York (apple country) is where my mother and her eight brothers and sisters were raised. To say the family has ballooned since the 1940s through 70s when they grew up would be an understatement. It’s more like a big Irish Catholic bomb went off and new babies rained down like shrapnel. 


In short, our grandparents raised nine children who produced 44 first cousins (22 girls, 22 boys), who have now added 49 more of their own. I know. That's a TON of young'uns. Except most don't live anywhere near the South, so they just call them "children." 

(My grandparents Art & Josephine...)


This reunion is truly larger than life. And since we can’t exactly find a block of rooms at the local inn that could hold us (or would want to), we rent out a whole camp. Besides dorms, cabins, and a pool, we had:


A gym for a serious basketball tournament (more on that later). 


A sand volleyball pit for a "seeded" tournament (are you picking up on a competitive streak, yet?)


A climbing wall…


A fishing derby… (check out Claire, the little blonde. She's riveted.)


But forget all that. The biggest challenge? 120 (give or take) Irish at a no-alcohol-allowed Baptist-owned camp. 

Oh, it wasn't as dry as it sounds. We went off-site for dinners and nightlife and took a load off. The above picture's from our picnic at nearby Krull Park. Note the multi-tasking with both hands. 


This one's from the reunion three years back. In a small town like this, when we arrive at a bar, we generally ARE the bar. The guy on the right, standing, blue sweatshirt? Quite possibly the greatest storyteller of all time—when he starts in with tales of the original nine children growing up, you hang close. And you might wet your pants with tales of boxing matches with his brother in their basement (officiated by their sister), various incidents that got them in hot water, and the like.


So that’s the set-up. Here's a snapshot of the itinerary:


And I said I learned a few things along the way, too, so here they are. 


Lesson 1: The value of wearing yourself out.

Hitting the pillow at the end of the day was like a drug. A slow, gratifying lights-out after an exercise/excitement/laughter cocktail. It’s worlds different than workaday mental exhaustion. Summer camp exhaustion is hurry-up-eat-breakfast-race-your-cousins-roller-derby-big-fat-field-day-beat-the-sunset worn out. How do you know the difference? First of all, you can’t wait to get up in the morning and see what happens next. Two, you can’t remember the last time you saw your phone. Yesterday? The day before? 

(Three-mile race down the road, past the orchards, to the pond)


(Kids' mad dash through the field)


Lesson 2: Never confuse the terms basketball “tournament” with “shootaround”
Okay, this lesson was completely new to me. We’re a basketball family, and since I was in charge of the itinerary, I smartly blocked off a whole afternoon for it. And I called it a shootaround. The original wording is here:


Turns out there's a big difference between informal-friendly-everyone's-a-winner shooting hoops and a fierce family rematch. Who knew the battle lines had already been drawn? And that the trash-talking about a rematch had been going on for roughly three years, since the last time they played each other? Which is why reactions to my frilly, friendly shootaround announcement ranged from, “Um, is this a joke?" to "Dude, this isn't funny—it's REAL.” 


So I fixed it. I posted these signs around the camp.

(Inlaws=blood cousins; outlaws=spouses; Emborskys=a team made up of one family who have enough boys for their own team.)


And those boys PLAYED. 


Click here for my cousin Sarah's blog which has a great shot of my Uncle John (U of Michigan coach) officiating, plus better details about the games. And a photo of the winners! (She's the superstar blogger I mention in the next lesson--her pictures are great, as is her entire rundown of the weekend. She's got the line-up of the whole clan which I skipped since you can find it there.


Lesson 3: Sometimes, you don't have to look too far to find people who inspire you. 

The Octomom and that dude with 103 kids by 78 different women (I'm rounding up) are proof that it doesn’t take a remarkable person to have this many babies. But it does take remarkable people to raise remarkable children. And I swear, I’m not talking about me. Trust me when I say that when you grow up in a family of this size, the only way you end up putting yourself on a pedestal is if someone’s trying to sell you.


I love tracking the paths the people in my family have taken. Besides the fact that we haven’t logged a single appearance on Jerry Springer, I’m most fascinated by all the different courses we've charted: Armed Forces, educators, coaches, docs, nurses, cops, teachers, historians, and a ton of stay-at-home moms—we’ve even got an Irish potter and a rodeo cowboy.


These things might sound ordinary to you. But if you got to meet them, you'd think differently. If you got to meet the mom who raised 10 of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known, the school principal who works overseas in places like Morocco and Senegal, the LifeFlight nurse who knows what it's like to lift off in Buffalo blizzards, the Marine One pilot who lifts off with Obama in the back and the other lifting off in Afghanistan as we speak... The college basketball coaches whose most adoring fans just might be their sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews, the Army doc who knows a thing or two about long deployments away from her kids, my mom whose spent more than two decades working on behalf of neglected and abused children, a masseuse for Hospice patients, a superstar mother-of-six blogger whose refreshingly honest parenting advice has given her a cult-like following, a Civil War historian curating the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum... I could go on. 


And again, this is no reflection on me. What this is is a reminder of the cool things you can do when you set your mind to them. Also, it's the best way I know of to teach our children that they can do anything they want.


Lesson 4: What true grit looks like.

Ever heard this quote?: “The test of a people is what they can do when they’re tired.” Winston Churchill said it, but if I didn’t know better, I’d say it came from someone at that reunion.


Someone like my cousin Sarah’s 15-year-old daughter, Abbey, who came in third overall in our three-mile race. As in, she blew right past two dozen very fit men and boys (including cousin Ryan, shown below getting smoked—sorry Ryan) to be the first girl over the finish line.


And a high-tech finish line at that.... 

I think Abbey decided she could win, and she did. Not a bad approach. There was a lot more of this grit, too—I saw it in my nephew Will a dozen times over in just this one weekend (pictured above, blue shirt, red shorts, heading up the toilet-paper holding operation, thought that's not necessarily an example of his grit—just his ability to hold toilet paper). I see it in both my Uncle Toms, my uncles John and Joe, my mother, so many... But much of it, you just have to see to believe.


Lesson 5: Nothing in the world beats talent shows and fireworks.

On the last night, we gathered at my cousin John's for our traditional talent show and fireworks show. I made flyers for that, too, because if I had to pick, I'd say our basketball tournament and this talent show are the main attractions of the weekend.

John has the perfect back porch to serve as a stage—here is just one picture, but Sarah has all of them. It's a much better glimpse at the whole production.

(These are my nieces and nephew singing God Bless the U.S.A. It was charming.)


Next came the fireworks—a spectacular show put on by my cousins John, Bill, Paul, and any other boy who decides to jump in and worry his mother by getting involved. I don't have photos of the actual fireworks, but this is a longtime favorite (from the previous reunion) of the kids watching the show. And this is exactly why the boys go to so much effort and expense to knock the fireworks out of the park—to get expressions like these:


Lesson 6: That everyone’s job could be worse.

As sad as we were that the festivities were over—that we had to go back to regular life, the workaday world—it could be worse. My sister and her family took a day trip down the road to Niagara Falls and saw this guy. He's the one who takes a weedeater to the Falls. Maybe going back to our own 9 to 5s isn't so bad after all...