Family and Solitude

knp-and-fallsMy favorite place on earth is an old, small summer home on the Black River in upstate New York. The house was built by my great-great-great-grandfather around the turn of the last century. Although no one is sure why, we have come to call the house Camp Wa-Ma-Dee, or just Camp. 

Closing my eyes, the warped yellow linolium that wraps around the floor materializes in my mind. My grandfather laid that tile down, back when it was in fashion. The mismatched furniture has been collected from the homes of relatives across the country. It “matches” only so far as the slipcovers that my great aunts and cousins have sewn allow it. The smell of yesterday’s fire mixes with morning dew and crisp air. I can hear the slamming of screen doors and the creaking of the old porch swing in the afternoon breeze. And if I sit long enough, I can even feel the gentle sway of the canoe as my sister and I cut across the glass river on the way to familiar adventures.

I suppose that everyone who has spent time there cherishes a different element of life in that house. For me, there are two such things that I love, and find myself longing for when I am away.

The first is family. Camp is jointly owned by my mother and her eleven cousins. Since all of them are grown now, many with children and grandchildren, there are always people at Camp. When I was younger, my great-grandmother lived up the road and between the two houses, there were always plenty of people around. Even after we sold her house, we would sometimes fit 10 or more people at Camp. (In spite of having just one small kitchen and an even smaller bathroom, no one complained. People are willing to put up with more at Camp.)

Meals were my favorite. The longest table I’ve ever eaten at would be weighed down with delicious food. Everyone took their time eating, talking and laughing. I learned new stories about my grandmother and her generation at every meal. The sun would set and people would be dispatched to do the dishes. I confess that I liked this nearly as much as the meal. Without a dish washer, all the plates and silverware and pots and pans must be handwashed, in a small sink in the screened-in porch. Whoever cooked the meal would be exempt from washing dishes, while the rest of us would laugh and sing and scrub and dry. I can’t adequately describe the joy that I still get from hand-washing dishes.

After dinner, the game would commence. Most often, we played cards, but I recall one game of monopoly that stretched into the evening which my second-cousin won handily (mainly by pursuading us younger cousins that his advice should be taken). Our games of crazy-eights would last for what seemed like hours. I’m not sure why, but I always remember laughter.

Now, we sometimes have Camp all to ourselves for a few days. I find myself missing the noise of my family and the joy of those meals. When we overlap with my aunt and uncle and cousins, the house somehow seems more alive, more true to the history that has been lived under its roof.

That is one side of my love of Camp – the big bustling family living under paper-thin walls and sharing life, if only for a weekend.

My other great love of Camp stems from its solitude. Even when Camp is packed with people, they are rarely all in the house. People go canoeing or hiking through the rapids, or up to Old Forge, or simply rest. In the afternoon, it is still and peaceful. The enveloping safety of those afternoons is one of my favorite feelings.

I love taking out a well-loved book that I have read before, sitting on the porch, or near a window and getting lost in the world of its pages, knowing all the while that I am untouchable in my own world. I cherish the time to take out the old Camp journals and pour over the handwriting of my relatives that have visited this house. You can see people age in those familiar pages; their stories coming together to write the story that I am now living in. Their history has shaped this place, just as this place has shaped my life.

Sometimes even sitting there, staring at the house around me is a feeling I would not trade. It’s hard to find that kind of rest in the midst of this city.

It is this feeling that prompted this post. During midwinter, everyone is indoors, and it is harder to find that cozy solitude. I long for Camp with its rest and its freedom. Perhaps some day, I will be able to duplicate that feeling within my own home. But until then, I count down the days until August, when all will again be right in the world, if only for an afternoon.


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