Sunday, October 17, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: When It Got Harder

If I had a spiritual home at all between the ages of seven and twelve, it was at the camp in North Carolina where I spent two summers. Twelve short weeks as I turned 10 and 11, but they probably saved my life. I've written a bit about my camp elsewhere; my children all became campers there, and two of them worked there last summer.

When I was seven, my mother and year-old baby brother were killed in a car accident on a glorious October day. I've written about that event elsewhere, too, and I won't dwell upon it here, except to say that it marked the end of my family's connectedness to the church. My grandmother told my brother, many years later, that she had decided to have nothing to do with a god who could permit such a terrible thing to happen, and my father has indicated, obliquely, that he did not feel much support or comfort emanating from the church after the accident.

It would be difficult, of course, for any community ever to provide enough comfort or support to a family at a time of such an unexpected and devastating loss. Beyond that, I can't comment, as I don't remember a thing one way or another.

My father remarried a couple of years later. His new wife and her children (and former husband) were known to us as family friends from Florida; she and her two youngest of moved to our home in Ohio. I suppose that I could write volumes on the wretchedness of blended family life from the point of view of a ten-year-old, but it's not a period of my life in which I have any interest in reliving.

We children did go back to Sunday School -- my stepmother viewed it as a weekly respite from the terrible trials of motherhood. I had acquired a stepbrother who was exactly my age and we quickly developed a Sunday morning routine. My dad would drive the four of us into town and drop us off at the back door of the church. My brother and I would would leave the younger boys to fend for themselves among the dedicated Methodists. We ourselves would walk quickly through the building, out the front door, and up the street to the drugstore at the main intersection of town, where we would further our education by reading Playboy and drinking Cherry Cokes. Think Scout and Jem Finch and you've about got the picture. An hour later we would walk back to church, go through the front door and out the back, where my dad would be waiting to pick us up. We had picked up some church lingo, and knew that if we told him that we had been studying Paul (whatever that meant), he would be satisfied.

It was a small town and everyone knew everyone else. It's likely that my dad knew where we were all the time, and remained silent to foster peace at home. I have no idea.

One of the few good things to come out of those miserable years was summer camp in North Carolina. My stepmother's solution to the blended family situation was to evacuate all children as quickly as possible, first to camp and, a little later, to boarding school.

I know that it sounds dreadful: send a not-quite-10-year old child away for two months barely seconds after her family has been reconfigured yet again? Well, it's not something that I would do if I found myself steparenting young children but, as I said, it made all the difference for me.

Camp was a place where a very sad girl could be carefree and independent and strong. The mountains of western North Carolina are gentle and embracing, the skies are clear (well... unless it's raining-- which would be about every day), the sunsets go on forever, and the streams run cold and clear. What better place for a respite from a tormented family life?
The camp was more expressly Christian in those days, and I do remember with pleasure the Sunday morning services on the point of land that jutted into the tiny lake, with all the campers and counselors dressed in white and the songs from an old Protestant hymnal. In today's diverse world, Sunday at camp is called "Special Day" and the programming is spiritual but nondenominational. It doesn't matter. That small haven in the mountains remains a place where generosity of heart and peacefulness of spirit are celebrated, where young children are embraced and then set free to explore a welcoming world of nature and freedom, and where God's touch, however you want to articulate it (or not), is everywhere.

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