A 80+ Year old Girl's Camp Cared for by Astonishing men
I wish everyone had a summer happy place. Or, any place in the world they could go and know they would be filled with such joy and good cheer they would mourn leaving and begin counting the days until their return weeks in advance.
Thanks to my great grandparents, I have this place. These ancestors, who I never met, sent my grandmother to an all girls camp in New Hampshire called Fleur de Lis.
When my grandmother had children of her own, she looked up the camp. It still existed so my Aunt attended and so did her daughter, my cousins and eventually me... I went for years and years and years. And so too have other generations of girls. Fleur de Lis sweeps us all up in friendship and love.
I still get to spend a week at camp each year at the end of the summer when Fleur de Lis converts into a bereavement camp for girls. It's called "Circle at Fleur de Lis."
While I could write pages about Fleur de Lis and Circle Camp, today, I really want to honor a family behind the scenes whose commitment to our precious little camp moves me.
I want to introduce you to the Whipples!
The Whipples lived behind camp. They own over a hundred acres all around the small girls camp and have been an incredible gift.
Henry Whipple started caring for the camp grounds as a teenager.
He was there when my grandmother went to camp in the late 1920s.
When I finally trotted off to camp with my little trunk in the 1980s, Henry was still there mowing the lawns and fixing hinges.
One of my last years at camp, I was elected Queen. One of the best parts was writing a speech to honor the shy and infinitely lovable Henry.
Eventually Henry died but left us a gift as precious as his contribution, his son Richard.
Richard also started caring for the camp as a teenager. What teenage boy in rural New Hampshire wouldn't relish the opportunity to take care of a girls camp?
Well Richard grew up, married and built a house behind the camp's senior field. The camp's extra food goes to his pigs and Richard spends his summer days caring for the camp in hundreds of ways.
Richard is as committed as Henry but 1/2 as shy. He talks to the girls and this summer even helped them build bird feeders.
I begged him for one, explaining that it would mean so much to have a little piece of him and his father in my home during the winter months.
It's now hung outside the little room where I'm writing this blog. While it's not squirrel proof, as you can see, nature seems to balance it out. The birds and animals take turns. It would not be in the Fleur de Lis spirit to exile the mammals.
Talking with Richard this summer anchored me.
He's a rural man who lives in a cottage he built with his own hands. He eats the pigs he raises and the eggs from his own farm.
He is present.
He knows the history of the land, too.
He can tell you about where the old blacksmith shop stood and the mills that made pails that sat behind today's archery field.
While Fleur de Lis is a girl's camp and has been from the start, the Whipples have been the warm fatherly and brotherly presence that have embraced these young women for decades.
These are men who love and support women in ways that are deeply masculine and strong.
I wish there were more people like them. I'm sure there are....we just need to keep looking and shine the light on them as often as we can.
I spend a good deal of my academic time considering how childhood trauma impacts the elderly. Child survivors of the Holocaust share with me their wartime stories as well as the decade upon decade of the aftermath. Many went on and lived full lives -- lives that never shook their past but expanded to something more.
These hundreds of hours with child survivors prepared me for my summer work this year. I spent time at Circle Camp at Fleur de Lis with an astonishing team of fellow counselors and over forty girls 9-15 who had lost a parent.
While death brought us together, I spent most of my time leading folks in silly songs, teaching the girls how to do contortions with a broom, and exploring with them the difference between fresh eggs from Richard's farm up the hill and the industrial eggs sent from Sysco.
I did have the great privilege of working with our social worker Ellen, spending a full day hearing the story of every girl at camp. During the "Grief Circle" the girls shared stories and pictures with the other girls in their bunk. They talked about how their parent died, who they lived with now and some of their on-going fears. Some didn't know, for example, what would happen if their remaining parent died; some had already gone into foster care or had been adopted. Many have had to change schools and leave their friends as a result. Death was only part of the loss.
Listening to them, I felt at home. That sounds odd perhaps. Maybe because people were being real; kids are SO real and when they talk about what matters to them, I cannot help but remember what matters to me.
I think one of the best things we can do for someone is to bare witness to her experience without trying to judge or change it. Instead of turning away from the sadness and trauma, we can just be there with them. Ask questions and help them elaborate and give words to some of their internal world.
They say that not feeling alone...being surrounded by others like them is one of the best parts of camp. I believe it.
I know from talking with survivors of trauma that these girls lives will be shaped in large ways by this experience. It's not something they will simply grieve for a year or so and then move on. With support, however, they can find others to step up and take on some of the parenting roles in their lives. They do not necessarily have to "grow up" so quickly because of this loss.
It may sound mystical or a bit etheric to say this -- in some way, I feel that the survivors were comforting these girls through me. They showed me how to just "be" with people -- it was too late to save them from the Holocaust just as it's too late to save these girls' parents. It's not too late, however, to be together. We shared a precious moment to together-- we lamented, celebrated and even enjoyed a little gloppy camp food.
Sarah Federman, PhD
Enjoy these short blogs and videos designed to bring you a little cheer.
My other blog Language of Conflict addresses the importance of word choice and narration in conflict.
Finish and Flourish supports writers struggling to complete projects.