All Together Now

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 18, 2002

Never has a hotel bed looked so alluring. After spending a week in a tiny YMCA cabin built in the 1950s, I nearly weep with joy at the sight of the Marriott's marble bathroom.

Yet even now, just hours after driving away from the family camp on a 66-acre island in the middle of New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee, I am missing the place.

It's called Sandy Island Family Camp, or Sandy Camp for short, and the YMCA official who runs it says it has a special spirit. I sense it the moment I arrive at the lake, and several other campers awaiting the ferry to the island stroll to my van, offering to help unload a week's worth of gear.

Teenagers here quickly lose that familiar sullen look. By evening, they are on the lodge dance floor, doing the hokey pokey and the electric slide, sometimes pairing up with parents, grandparents or younger siblings. Even young children are allowed to wander the forest paths alone, their parents confident of their safety in this community of campers.

Family camps were already a growing trend prior to the 9/11 disaster that spurred Americans to draw close to those they love. In 1982, the American Camping Association listed 48 accredited camps that devoted at least some weeks of the year to families. By 1991, the figure had grown to 201. This year, the association lists about 500.

Sandy Camp, of course, was for families long before the idea was trendy. I'm excited to join in. One of the major lures, for me, is the placid lake, 26 miles long and bordered by forests that meld into green mountains that seem to touch the sky. Occasionally, a loon passes by. It is like a scene from "On Golden Pond."

My daughter, on the other hand, was intent this year on going with her 10-year-old friend, Becky Koretz, for a first sleepaway camp experience. By repeatedly promising not to "nag or bug" them, I persuaded both Maddie and Becky, with the permission of Becky's parents, to let me pick a camp that would allow me to tag along.

For one thing, I longed to go to camp again.

For years I'd been dropping Maddie off each summer morning at various day camps, wishing I could stay. I'd watched other parents linger, obviously wanting to sing the old songs and make clay pots and lanyard key chains, rather than head to work.

Moreover, I wanted to be with my daughter.

I know, sleepaway camp executives say camp teaches independence and cuts the apron strings between child and parent. Most ban phone calls and discourage visits, and some even publicly embarrass children who receive too many letters from home.

I wonder what generation of American children they are thinking of that needs to loosen parental bonds. Like most American mothers, I work for a living, and after a few months of maternity leave, handed my baby over to a virtual stranger. Maddie, like her classmates, started nursery school at age 2. Most of her waking hours each weekday are spent miles from her parents' workplace. I don't anticipate any clinging when it's time for her to make her own way in life, and I feel no guilt about dreading the time so quickly approaching.

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