The to-do list is growing shorter. The hedges are trimmed, roof leaks sealed, mower repaired. I unwrapped beds and aired linens while my husband rebuilt sections of rotted porch columns. Our children have been conscripted into yard work and cleaning, fetching rakes and brooms and hand tools when we holler for help. This kind of work is meditative. There’s a rhythm to sweeping and scrubbing and mopping that leaves me free to ponder our, my, relationship with this camp. It’s not a vacation. At least, not by my definition of the term. It is, however, a restoration. A reclamation. Together we are working to restore the camp from slow decay, and in doing so we reclaim our family, our friendships, and even my husband’s past.
The camp is called Dingley Dell. When it was established between the wars, the founders called the campers “The Adventurers”. My husband grew up on his father’s Peter Pan-esque stories of the boys who built giant sailing ships and roved pirate-style up and down Lake Champlain. Those glory days are long past. The assembly hall is filled with bird nests and pockets of blown-in leaves. Fractured remains of boats are beached in the woods. Each summer when we first arrive I have a tendency to make inappropriate jokes about arson and tell my husband we could pay the taxes if we rented the camp out as a location for a horror movie. He has different eyes, though. Here and at home he can look at a building and see its potential. Work doesn’t daunt him. He has the skill and the patience and the drive to make this place better. And he’s right. A week of work and it’s comfortable. A second week plus the artful placement of peonies — cut from the ghost of a garden — and the buildings become charming.
It’s not easy. At home, the children spend much of their summer playing electronic devices, sometimes with friends, often alone or next to each other on the couch — each in their own pixelated world. I am no different; I spend most of my days at my computer. I call it work but spend as much time chatting with friends as balancing checkbooks and paying bills. My husband works, hustling off after breakfast and returning just in time for supper. His evenings and weekends year-round are punctured by the need to accommodate customers who aren’t available during the day. While I aspire to be an engaged and inspirational parent, trips to the museum or swimming pool often take more effort than I can muster.
Here, electronics are forbidden until the end of the day for all of us. Instead we work, together. During a post-breakfast board game each day we go over what chores need to be done. We do take breaks for games and (when it’s warm enough) a trip to the lake to wash off the day, but so much needs to be done that we can’t just relax. The children gripe, but I smile to myself as I see them at their father’s side, taking in his lessons on carpentry, repairing slate roofs, how to properly construct a bonfire. They’re also absorbing our lessons on a strong work ethic and taking pride in a job well done. Their objections are slowly diminishing as they become accustomed to helping. They’re taking on more, too. At home I take care of all the housework. Here, each child is responsible for doing the dishes by hand after a meal. I no longer have to order them to help hang the laundry and bring it in when it is dry (or re-hang it indoors when the rain comes). They even have created a project for themselves, turning the loft into an indoor play space and sleeping fort. With some help from us they relocated drifts of abandoned furniture and pulled up layers of peeling linoleum to expose the wood floor that needs to be caulked and painted. They filled two giant bags with trash and detritus, swept the floor, and primed the walls. Together they chose a first paint color — fluorescent orange immediately vetoed by laughing parents — and settled for a gray green that won’t show dirt quite so well.
I have to admit: I am not good at this level of togetherness. In the usual course of events I spend several days a week by myself. I am adjusting, slowly, to the constancy of my family. Every activity is spent with at least one other person. It is difficult for me, but I can see how beneficial it is for us all. We are forced to express our needs out loud, rather than hiding in a different room until the moment passes. My daughter, queen of getting her own way, is starting to compromise and share. Our son, who excels at disappearing, is reluctantly participating. I am practicing being present rather than off in my own head or with my electronic circle of friends. My husband must take other peoples’ needs and abilities into consideration. We are growing closer. It’s subtle, but our family is gradually being reclaimed from the distractions available in the outside world.
Not that we’re entirely isolated. Our first guests came last weekend. He is a high-school classmate of my husband, nearly forgotten until a reunion five years ago. He and his wife are road-tripping up the East Coast thanks to their daughter’s summer camp plans. Their email, “Can we pop in?” was surprising, but by the end of their visit we’d exchanged email addresses and made tentative plans to visit them in the spring. Upcoming visitors will include college friends and some online pals I’ve never met in person. I count myself incredibly fortunate for this opportunity. Back home everyone is always so busy. Despite the relative flexibility of my schedule I have to schedule weeks in advance to have lunch with a friend. Without social media many of my relationships would completely wither. Even with that touchstone, I can feel how hollow many of those are. I do my best to share openly, honestly, frequently. I’ve been warned by at least one person that I say too much, too publicly. Most people give only glimpses of their lives, assuming that it is enough. How, though, can I call someone my friend if I have no idea what is really happening in their life? Here we have the opportunity to reclaim old acquaintances and forge new ones. So much can be said over — and after — a meal. We create connections without words while staring out at sailboats on the lake, and make friends of strangers over card games and croquet. I find the allure of the internet fading as I plan meals and prepare guest rooms and figure out what activities we will share.
My husband tells stories of roving the woods with friends and family, getting into, and out of, trouble. On our first visits here, when we had to place half a dozen buckets to catch the leaks and the ceilings were falling in and raccoons nested in our beds, I couldn’t understand why he wanted to come back. Now I have thousands of pictures of him working — raising sinking foundations and re-slating an entire roof and fixing, fixing, fixing. I have scrubbed floors and walls and ceilings and painted them as well. My pride-of-place is growing to match his. And with each sailing adventure or tennis match, with each cocktail hour and cheese plate, with every walk around the property and every tale told of the boys who built the place and the man and woman who have worked so hard to restore it, those peter Pan stories come closer to life. It isn’t easy, coming here. It’s not a vacation, but it is worth it.