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Summer Camp, Cousins, and Cody Jinks…

 

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When I was nine-years-old, I was dropped off at summer camp for a two week stay. The camp was nestled in the rolling hills and piney woods of Shelby County in East Texas.

At this young age, I had never been away from my family, so in the eyes of my parents, the “two-week-long” experience might be shaky at best. Could she make it the entire two weeks?

I was like an explorer discovering new lands. Everything was unspoiled and my eyes were wide-open, taking it all in.

In no time at all, I had found my second home at camp–it was as if I had discovered my mothership. The days were filled with sunshine and friends and that care-free feeling only a child understands.

As we age, I believe our collection of memories gets edited, and many times we forget unpleasant things. I honestly don’t remember having any homesickness or sadness in that first year of camp. There were a couple of older girls from my hometown who took me under their wings, and encouraged and supported me. I thought they were so cool, and surprisingly, the feeling was mutual.

Throughout my years at camp, I met many new and lifelong friends, and flourished in the environment of day-time activities, and night-time truck rides and sing-songs.

Aside from the many adventures, friends, counselors, and fun, the thing I most remember about Camp Huawni is the feeling I had the first time I had to leave. That same feeling followed me each and every year, and is one that I still experience when I have to say goodbye.

On that last day of camp, we gathered inside the Dining Hall. We all sat on the floor, the tables and chairs had been moved aside. Awards were given out, speeches were made, and songs were sung. Each of us was given a copy of “Smoke Signals,” the camp newspaper, which included stories and reports of all the activities of our two week session.

The very last thing we did was sing the camp song. We sang this often, so I didn’t think it would be a big deal. Before Mike and Pat started strumming their guitars, I looked between the gap in the closed curtains and could see parents lined up outside, eager to greet their children. The end of camp began to seem real.

In unison, the room filled with voices singing, “Tis where I see the sun a-rising, and the pine trees swaying tall…”

I know I must have sung that song dozens of times throughout those fourteen days, but for some reason the words wouldn’t come out of my mouth. Instead, I felt a huge lump in my throat, and knew if I tried to sing, I would end up gasping for air. My eyes welled up with tears and for the first time in my short little life, I was emotionally paralyzed.

The song ended, the doors were opened, and the campers dashed out to see their parents. I spotted my mom and dad among the crowd, and ran to them. And then I started to cry. But not just a tiny bit. I was bawling! Confused, my parents thought I was simply overwhelmed and excited to see them.

We walked to my cabin to retrieve my trunk full of mostly dirty clothes, and wet towels that I had carelessly tossed in as a future fourth grader who knew nothing about the dos and don’ts of laundry and the horribly unwelcome guest known as mildew. I grabbed Mrs. Beasley, the doll who always went along on every adventure, hugged my counselor and cabin-mates as we said our farewells, and turned to look around the cabin one last time.

When my parents loaded my belongings in the car and I buckled my seatbelt, the dam finally broke, and I began wailing, “I don’t want to go home!” I was sobbing uncontrollably.

My parents had no idea what to say because this was all foreign to them. I’m sure it sort of hurt their feelings, but I also know that in many ways they were proud of me for going into this unknown situation as a slightly timid and shy child, and emerging as much more mature, adventure-seeking, confident camper and person.

As we drove down the unpaved, winding camp road, I began reliving every moment of my stay, from singing my favorite songs, “Salty Dog,” and “Joe Shields,” to talking about hunting down the Wild Woman, and the complete and utter fear she wrought into my life.

We arrived home, and I was one exhausted little girl. I thought a nap would make me feel better, and knew when I awakened, this feeling of sadness and loneliness would go away.

But it didn’t. I was hollow. I missed my friends and the routine of being a camper. I missed swimming, and swinging on the rope across the obstacle course. I wanted to ride my favorite horse Lucky again, and I longed to sit under the stars, in the cool green grass, as I listened to the music of the guitar, and sang my heart out.

This feeling didn’t shake for some time, and in fact, I can honestly say as a somewhat grown-up adult, I still feel wistful and nostalgic when I remember those days. As a line from the camp song says, “A part of my heart will always be at Camp Huawni.”

This past weekend, as my husband and I drove away from our Cousin Coastal Weekend Reunion in Rockport, I was taken back emotionally to that last-day-of-camp experience. I didn’t completely feel the “let-down” until Monday morning, when I was forced to get back to the drudgery of my daily routine. I missed the companionship, the laughter, the stories, but mostly I missed the connection. The great link between all of our lives. I missed who we used to be and who we are now.

And on a weekend that celebrated fathers, I missed my dad…

Three years ago, our cousin group gathered to celebrate my Uncle Donnie’s 80th birthday. Donnie is not only my dad’s younger brother, but was also my dad’s best friend. And after almost twenty-eight years of dad being gone, seeing him always warms my heart, and makes me a little melancholy.

During our 2018 weekend in Gonzales, we all downloaded “WhatsApp,” and formed the group known as “Come and Take It,” so named after the famous battle in Gonzales that was the beginning of the journey to Texas Independence. Through this App, we keep in touch, share the latest news in our lives, and plan our next reunion.

Last year, the reunion was the weekend of my youngest son’s wedding. I was so pleased and proud that everyone came, even though I didn’t get to experience the “after party” at the hotel.

I am finding this blog very difficult to write, and feel it is disjointed. That is simply because I can’t find the words to truly express our relationship and the times we spend together. The word PERFECTION may seem too over-the-top, but it’s all I’ve got.

Our cousin group consists of a total of twenty-eight people. This year, nineteen of us, along with my uncle, were able to gather together on the Texas coast, and spend an unforgettable weekend.

The oldest four cousins are my brother Greg and I, and sisters DeeDee and Noelle. If we lined up like the Von Trapp family, the order would be Greg, DeeDee, me, and Noelle. For as long as I can remember, we have been a part of each others’ lives, as we shared many holidays and summers at my Nana and Papa’s house.

During those stays, we invented games like “Carrot Monster,” and as 2nd-6th graders, we re-enacted, created and played our own version of the game “Watergate.” Seriously. We played Watergate.

Along the way, a second wave of cousins came along, with Joan, and Angela, Crystal and Karen. Many more memories were created, as we all shared the common bond of being GW and Edith Brown’s grandchildren–a cherished legacy that requires both responsibility and commitment.

This weekend, as we all merged into Rockport, Texas, coming from all over the state, as well as NYC, we brought with us great expectations. After all, we had been planning this for almost a year. We filled the beach house with laughter, and stories, and love and memories.

Upon our arrival, we were greeted by our cruise director, Karen, who is the organizer extraordinaire–an event planner at the top of her game. She sported a “cruise director” shirt, was wearing a scarf, held a clipboard, and showed us to our rooms as the music from “The Love Boat” played in the background.

On our beds we found our “Come and Take It” shirts rolled up and tied with a bow, along with the itinerary for the weekend. After unloading our things, we were presented with cocktails and snacks. We felt fancy and special, to say the least, and as far as details were concerned, no stone was left unturned.

Throughout the weekend, we each found our niche–we all had a role to fulfill. There were entertainers, singers, chefs, organizers, story-tellers, guides, mother hens, jokesters, grandparents, cheerleaders, and captains.

We took turns preparing meals, went to the beach, ate fajitas, drank margaritas, went fishing, lounged by the pool or in the pool, and played games.

There were glances across the room, unspoken words that only “cousins” can get. We laughed about all the ways we were like Nana, and admired the way that my brother, the only male and oldest cousin, took on the role as our leader. In many ways, he is now the patriarch of the family–the tie that binds us together.

It’s amazing how each year we pick up where we left off, and how our spouses who married into this club, have seamlessly become a part of the family. It was heart warming to see our children bond, and exchange numbers and gaming information! It felt great knowing that hopefully, this tradition and our family will carry on.

On the last night, we completed a questionnaire game, called “This and That,” which was prepared by Greg and his wife. The FOUR page document started out with circling an answer, but ended with each of us answering questions. We all kiddingly griped about it, and someone even asked if Greg could read it for us, since he has the job of HEAD READER (given to him by Papa who always asked Greg to read the historical markers to the rest of us).

After completing what became known as the COUSIN EXAM, we went around the room and shared our answers. We found out things about each other we didn’t know. We found things we had in common, and other things we didn’t. We talked about our Cousin George Strait, Greg and Melissa’s favorite singer Cody Jinks, and the TV series, “Yellowstone.” We laughed and cried, and shared our lives.

As the weekend came to a close, we ended with a Fathers Day brunch at my second cousin’s house (or as Kerry might say, “Our second cousin, once removed”). We took a group picture, ate wonderful food, and celebrated the dads in the group. And the one dad who was absent.

As I think back on this memorable experience, I understand more than ever the importance of family. Of spending time, keeping our legacy alive, and remembering those who have gone before us. My father would be thrilled to know that we are making a commitment to meet once a year. He would also be so thankful that his brother also spends that time with us.

When it came time to leave, I felt that same loneliness of the last day of camp, only without singing the camp song. I kissed and waved goodbye to my grandson, and son and daughter-in-law. I hugged the cousins who I hold so dear in my heart, already looking forward to next year. And as we drove away, I knew I was better, and stronger and more complete than when I first arrived. My cup was overflowing.

At some point in our lives, without us really knowing, the torch was passed. And we accepted it. We have decided to honor and pay tribute to our family and heritage. One weekend a year, we turn off the TV, and replace it with meaningful conversations, laughter, love, and music.

And then we go our separate ways, knowing we will meet again. Like Noelle’s favorite singer, Jim Croce, we have many “photographs and memories.” We also understand the importance of time and making the most of it. Living life to the fullest with no regrets.

My heart is filled with unexplainable love, respect, and appreciation for the people who God put in my life. They are kind, successful, hardworking, and intensely love both God and country.

As I sit here, a little misty-eyed, and somewhat homesick, and at a loss for adequately saying all that I feel, I am comforted by the words my cousin Karen included in our chat today–appropriately, a line from a Cody Jinks song:

So here’s to “The lifers…The last of the Great Generation. It seems they still dream.”

 

 

 

 

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