My mom slathered a third layer of sunscreen on my already pink arms and hugged me one last time in front of my new home for the next month, a cabin aptly named Chatterbox. Another girl my height dashed out of the front door of the cabin and across the gravel road in front of us toward the commissary, and before the screen door could slam behind her, the roar of unruly 10 year old girls giggling and shouting escaped briefly from inside.
Though the first Mystic camper in my family, I was one of thousands of Texas women who had come before me to Hunt, Texas each summer since 1926- to learn how to fish, shoot a rifle and a bow and arrow, and swim gracefully in the cool waters of the Guad.
Like many of us who grew up going to camp, these summers shaped me into the person I am today.
I developed a fondness for handwritten snail mail that has stayed with me. Weekly awards for “Best Posture” engrained in me a permanent motive to always sit up straight. Morning cabin inspections (rewarded with the much coveted secret recipe oatmeal chocolate chip cookies) taught me how to mop and tidy up effectively in a jiffy.
A letter addressed to Mom and Dad was a camper’s required entry ticket into the dining hall for Sunday fried chicken (appropriately called Chicken Letters) and taught me to make staying in touch with my parents a priority. Hand painted on a wooden sign, “Patience is a virtue” reminded antsy girls waiting in line at the commissary for popsicles after rest hour not to push or shove. The infirmary, called Heaven Can Wait, was an air conditioned oasis with nurses so nice they must’ve sweat sugar water. I once came in complaining of generally not feeling well and left with a glass of ice cold lemonade and massaged feet.
It’s been over 10 years since my last summer at Mystic, but the memories I made on those beautiful 725 acres are endless and come to me often. I share an indescribable bond with generations of women who have collected these same memories. I am certain that all of us are transported back to Mystic daily in our thoughts. Checking emails at the office or driving in the car, I might suddenly remember collecting baby frogs at Bubblegum Creek or find myself humming “Barges,” a song we used to sing around giant crackling campfires.
At any given time, I’m thinking of Blue Bell ice cream eating contests, War Canoe, natural mud facemasks from “the Tubs,” and how the power would always go out from hundreds of hairdryers and curling irons before the Stewart Dance, whence the neighboring boys camp would pile out of buses by the dozen in button downs chosen carefully by their mothers.
I look back fondly on bobbing for apples and piling in together for bumpy hay rides at the carnival. Sounds and tastes and images of Mystic run through my blood. The cicadas outside my screened window at night. The whir of fans and snores of dog-tired girls during rest hour. The smell of Richard’s coffee cake on Saturday mornings. I’ll never forget the feeling of holding tiny sweaty hands of girls of all ages as we walked in a line up the secret, un-marked path to Kiowa Tribe Hill, chanting slightly out of sync as we went.
The sound of Reveille and Taps echoing across the camp at sunrise and bedtime now echo in my heart. All of it has stayed with me– the leftover sting of belly flop contests, the shrill sound of my own scream upon collecting my drying socks from the clothesline, only to discover a hiding tarantula. And I get the sense that these memories float in ether mingling with the memories of all of the other campers who came before me. All fond summer camp memories are connected somehow, which bonds me with others who hold them.
Today, I call upon my lessons from summer camp to make me a better person. Lessons of patience and sharing and reapplying sunscreen. Lessons of disconnecting and spending time outside. And one lesson in particular from an old and beloved camp director, Iney, comes to me often these days as I experience the ups and downs of navigating adulthood.
It’s easy enough to be pleasant,
when life flows along like a song
But the girl worth while is the one who will smile
when everything goes dead wrong
The things learned at summer camp, as simple as they are, we often forget as adults. Even if you didn’t spend your Mays packing a truck to the brim with t-shirts and socks in preparation for summer camp, I encourage all of us to remember the days when sharing and patience and reapplying sunscreen were the most important lessons we could follow.
If I can sum up Camp Mystic with one word, it would be tradition. From the sacred songs sung in unison on Tribal Hill, to wearing all white on Sunday, tradition was taken seriously by young and old. As a child, Mystic demonstrated to me the power of longtime tradition: the bond it could create between people, the culture it could create within a community. I witnessed the power of generations of tradition, and since have been shaped by it.