The 40-Something-Year-Old Camper

“Did you go to camp?” Jill, the owner, asked me. I was interviewing for a job driving a van at Camp Taconic for the summer. When I was a kid I went to day camp, Girl Scout camp, and even an international camp in Switzerland. I had some great experiences, but I didn’t experience a full-summer sleep away camp like Camp Taconic. My husband and his four siblings all went to sleep away camp; it was a tradition in his family that we continued when we sent our son Jack two years ago.

I remember the look of horror on one friend’s face when I told her I was sending my then-nine-year-old son away for seven weeks. Her expression seemed to say, “What kind of terrible mother are you that you want to be apart from your child for so long? Don’t you love him?” Of course I would miss him. But I knew he’d have an amazing time and that I was giving him a gift of lifelong friendships and memories. He took to camp like a duck to water, and my daughter Natalie followed suit two years later. They have never been happier than they were this summer.

With Jill Mindlin, my college roommate who introduced me to Camp Taconic

A number of things inspired me to want to work at camp. My successful treatment for breast cancer three years ago and the loss of my mother this year have given me renewed inspiration to seize the day. I know it’s important to appreciate everything I have and experience everything I want to now, because we never know what the future holds. I am so lucky to have two amazing, healthy children and I thought it would be fun to peek into their world at camp. I was trying to figure out what direction to take my career and felt that a little time away from my ad agency would help provide some perspective. And my closest friend had been working at this camp for six years and knew that this would be her last, as her kids are aging out and she is returning to being a full time attorney. It was wonderful to spend time with her and to get to know the people from camp who hold a special place in her life.

Jack and Natalie arriving at camp

I was hired and I had the unique opportunity to go to camp as an adult, taking a sabbatical from my real job. I was a bit hesitant to tell Jack that I would be coming to “his” camp. It was bad enough that his sister would be starting this year, now his mother was going to embarrass him all summer? Luckily he took the news quite well. And when we got to camp we discovered that the other three boys bunks in his age group also contained a kid whose mother was a senior staff member so it didn’t seem so weird that his mom was there.

The first few days I felt like a stranger in a strange land with unfamiliar words and customs. I had to decipher a bevy of new acronyms: the FAC (Fine Arts Center), OD (On Duty), ENO (Early Night Out), DUR (Dirty Utensil Receptacle), and the TAC lawn (I never did figure that one out.) Guys had nicknames like Binny and Princess and Bubbles. We listened for bells to tell us when to gather for meals and daily rituals like Sing and Milk & Cookies.

Scenes at Camp Taconic

 

Fortunately the veteran staff members were welcoming, thoughtful and caring. They helped me navigate this brave new world and by the second week my culture shock was waning. Around week four I was thoroughly in “the bubble” and knew that re-entry to the real world at the end of the summer would be just as difficult.

 
Camp friends

 

It’s amazing how quickly you bond with people you live, work and play with 24/7. It’s like college, or (I would imagine) the military. People come back to Camp Taconic year after year, maturing from campers to counsellors to senior staff members. Camp becomes their summer home, the people here a second family. Traditions are carried on for decades and others are created anew each year.

There are rules in place to ensure that staff members’ children have a typical camp experience and that other kids don’t get jealous for some parental attention. Campers are not allowed in their parent’s room except if the child is sick. It’s fine to interact with your kids and watch their dramatic performances or sports tournaments, but PDAs are discouraged…unless we hug the rest of the kids in the bunk too. There’s a lot of hugging at camp. You see the little ones in their counsellors’ laps, the kids with their arms around each other during Sing (the camp-wide sing-along that starts each day; it might sound corny but it’s so much fun).

 
Natalie on the waterfront

 

During the summer Natalie always had a huge smile and waved at me when our paths crossed. She liked that I got to see when she jumped into the lake or stood up on her bench to sing and dance during dinner (camp being the only place where this behavior isn’t just tolerated, it’s encouraged.)

 
Jack in a roller hockey tournament

 

The first few weeks Jack pretty much tried to steer clear of me. He’s only 11 but is already exhibiting some teenage behaviors like being totally embarrassed to be seen with your parents when you’re hanging out with your friends. Well, at camp you’re ALWAYS hanging out with your friends.

Then the most amazing thing happened. At the Closing Ceremonies for the Taconic Games (our PC name for color war) I was blown away by what these kids — both the campers and counsellors, most of whom are college students — were able to create. Huge “center pieces” that are really designed sets. Songs written and memorized in a matter of days. Elaborately choreographed dramatic entrances with a cast of hundreds. It was a spectacular and surprisingly emotional display of camp spirit. I caught sight of Jack in the crowd of his Green team members and, like many others, he was crying. So of course I started crying, looking through this window into what camp means to him. The next thing I knew, he was heading towards where I was sitting on the sidelines. He hugged me and thanked me for sending him here, for making it possible for him to be a part of this. It is a moment I will always cherish.

I don’t mean to imply that it was all a walk in the park. I worked really hard, not just being the camp Uber but also as a Bunk Mom for a group of 9-year-old boys (trying to keep their bunk from being a total disaster area), writing daily updates on the camp website, working in the canteen and lending a hand in the office. There were the minor frustrations that come with any job, but I didn’t let them bother me. You can’t sweat the small stuff.

Camp Taconic is basically a pop-up town in the middle of the Berkshires that has to accommodate the needs of hundreds of people — morning, noon and night. Running it all seems like a Herculean task. I am in awe of the owner, Jill Kleinman, who knows every kid’s name and supervises virtually every aspect of life at camp. She’s the CEO of a small village and does it all by not taking a break for seven weeks straight and by hiring excellent people and letting them do their jobs. She’s also got a great business partner, Mark Transport. Along with their spouses Loren Kleinman and Meryl Transport they divide and conquer. Of all the things I expected to get from this experience, a lesson in effective management was an unanticipated bonus.

A concert on the shore of Lake Ashmere

 

While I would love to return to Camp Taconic next year, it will depend on what the next 10 months bring. During the summer I got an unexpected offer from an employee to buy out my stake in the agency and I accepted it. I am no longer a partner at MK Creative Media Marketing, my professional home for 16 years. It was time for me to move on and I’m excited to figure out my next act. Being away from the job definitely helped give me the clarity to make the right decision for me.