They were ruining my day. Both of them. And I yelled at them. Right there on the day camp field. Didn’t they know what this place meant to me? Hadn’t I told them hundreds of stories about day camp?
We were visiting my childhood home, just me and the kids. It was a beautiful fall in Alabama that November, but mom was very sick and mostly in bed. I had taken the kid's schoolbooks to Birmingham, in hopes of keeping a routine. Jason drove us down there, then turned around and went home for the week to work. It was hard without him. The kids watched too much tv. Ate too much junk. It just didn’t matter. I barely had room in my head for school, and the kids had no patience for it. It was so hard to keep things straight during those days, and raising kids with a sick mother was so complicated. We were making juice, brewing tea, trying to keep her hydrated and fed. She didn’t weight much. My head was foggy, my heart was sick with fear. My body was really tired, and my knee pain had been acting up for months. It was giving me so much trouble that I had a hard time falling asleep at night. I thought about having it checked, but who has the time? And the kids just wanted to be having fun. They would smile, giggle, fight, ask for food, then do it all again. My boys didn’t understand what was going on. It was so hard.
About mid trip I just had to get away. And I didn’t dare leave the kids behind, not with Gigi so sick and resting so much. It was fun enough, going across the creek where my parents live. The giant rocks below my parent’s home mean more to me now than ever. I wish I’d spent more time in the creek bed, beneath these huge formations. But the need to be free from the pain was there. I needed to be me, if only for a few moments. But I don’t live in Alabama anymore. I felt I had no where to go. But the more I thought about it, there was one place that I knew I could go. I could go to Hargis. It was perfect. The boys love the outdoors and it was going to be a beautiful day. It would break up the trip, and give us a change of pace.
I packed snacks, drinks, and we had hiking shoes. We were ready to go. It took about 50 minutes to get to the campground, where I had once lived, breathed, hiked, fished, canoed and sang at the top of my lungs as a day camp counselor.
It started in the car, the bickering. And I was patient. I had not been the most relaxed mom of late and I had wanted a fun, chill day. The fighting didn’t stop even after my cool, collected mom voice reminded them of all the fun that was coming. I did my best to remain steady. It was so hard to be even. I could feel my heart melting with frustration at my children. I wanted to find joy in the day, and the boys were not making it easy. I spoke again, more harshly this time and they did quit arguing, for a while. I thought it was over. I was glad for that.
But it continued when we arrived and parked. We got out and walked into the cafeteria to use the restroom. I was most certainly surprised to see my old boss, and his smile warmed my aching heart. We hugged and spoke for a few minutes and I told him I wanted to hike the trails, with my boys. He said of course! So we used the restroom and filled our water bottles. The boys and I took off for the playground that leads to the hiking trails, and for a while things were fine. The kids played for a few minutes, and then it was time to hike. Things began well, but as we continued to the chapel, Finley began to complain, “How far do we have to hike, mom? I am so tired already. When do we get to play?” I answered him, telling him about the dinosaur eggs (giant rocks to climb) and the beaver dam, and the cool trails and cabins. He did not care. I wondered at how many times I hiked that very trail? And he was already complaining. We stopped to climb the climbing rock, the one that points to the lake. I did not remember it being so high. I was quite nervous to try to top it. We had a good time, we all climbed up, and I helped them get back down. But never were they content. I continued to use my most loving and caring tone. Still, I felt a measure of ungratefulness and entitlement, and it hurt. Sometimes nature breeds time and space for emotional reset. I was waiting and hoping for that.
We soon topped the hill, they had a good time exploring the Chapel at the top. Then we ran down to the day camp field, where I felt sure we’d begin to all just enjoy the time together outdoors. The vibe had been so off. We raced to the end of the field, I showed the boys where my first job at Hargis was, the tent village. I used to teach children on field trips on how to make cornhusk dolls, homemade candles, and butter. I along with a group of staff members dressed as pioneers in the woods, where we pretended to live and have our home in the pioneer days. It was a part of the outdoor education program each fall. And I loved it. In the spring, we’d take the school groups on hikes to the beaver dam. Sometimes we'd fish, and we talked about the lake, the habitat, and the animals. It was such a fun job. The tents looked old and run down now. I missed the way it felt back then. It felt so real. Now it looked so empty. No wonder the kids didn’t care much about the story. It was hard to imagine. The boys wanted to go back to the playground now. I told them we had not even been to the dinosaur eggs yet. When I asked if they wanted to go, my heart broke in two when they said no. You cannot imagine my sentimental soul at that moment. What a divine place in nature filled with hours of fun for kids. I wished they would just trust me! But they wanted instant gratification. No vision for something better. It was at that moment that I decided that my children would no longer ruin my day. It broke my heart, but I snapped.
I stopped them right there on the field where we’d been walking and talking. I turned my body toward my two small sons. Nine and seven years old, they stood looking up at me. I saw selfish pride on their faces, and I blew up.
“You two are RUINING MY DAY! Do you know what? I took you both out to eat this week, took you hiking, watched movies with you, and brought you HERE to the most BEAUTIFUL place where I HAVE SPECIAL memories, and all you can do IS COMPLAIN! WELL, I HAVE HAD IT!”
They both began to cry.
“We are NOT LEAVING. We are NOT GOING HOME UNTIL I AM READY. This is MY DAY. You are here to either ENJOY IT or HATE IT. But you will NOT COMPLAIN, and we are NOT LEAVING until I hike to ALL THE PLACES I WANT TO GO. You, in this moment, YOU have a CHOICE to either LOVE or HATE today. But I will NOT LET YOU ACT THIS WAY ANYMORE. I am going to enjoy this place on this day!”
By this time they were both in my arms, crying and saying “I’m so sorry mom, I’m so sorry.”
I was still angry and didn’t want to say more, so I held my tongue. The message had been sent and received and I felt horrible about it going down that way. But I was also glad to get their attention. For the first moment that day, I felt seen. I felt heard.
We all sat there and cried together on the day camp field. Me for yelling, and for feeling so many emotions, them for making me upset.
I honestly didn’t know how the day would go after that. I knew I was going to stick to my word and enjoy the magic of this place. I felt they would be timid for a bit. And they were. But by the time we entered the woods to hike the trail up to the cross, they were all smiles and laughs. We topped the hill where the cross is, where you can see the lake and the fishing hut, and so much of the camp. Finally, I felt at peace. We all began to be ourselves.
It was not as far as I remember to get to the big climbing rocks, and the boys did just as I expected. They climbed and played on the dinosaur eggs and did not want to go home. I thought about hiking further, like we used to do, but decided not to push my luck with the kids. We cut back down the hill through the woods, we found the old beaver dam, still traces of an outdoor classroom. Memories started rushing back. Once, I taught small children about nature there. I loved that place. One time, me and a group of day campers booked it across that beaver dam and came out of the woods near the haunted barn. Then we took the gravel road back to the camp. All of our shoes, gross and muddy. I loved those days. They were full of adventure.
The boy’s full turn around was evident on the hike back. We stopped and looked at different things, and the mood had most certainly changed. I felt more aware of how each of us affects one another. The day was more and more special as we came up to cross the bridge, then we headed back to the outdoor chapel where we began. We stopped and played on the bleachers, then we played at the playground and we went to the fishing hut to investigate. The weather was so nice, and the colors of nature were crisp. I loved the leaves littering the ground. The light breeze all day was finally appreciated, and I felt my deep love for that place.
On the drive home, we chatted about the day. Brighton talked about his favorite part, and then Finley chimed in. We stopped for a drink on the way home. I turned up the music as we hit the highway. I turned it up so loud we did not talk. We all sat quietly in the van (my dad let me borrow a vehicle for the week) and just listened. We were all calm now, our heavy and discontented hearts, now light and full. Full of nature and full of time together. Our hearts were happy.
When we got home, I had a renewed sense of self. Even with the heaviness weighing down the days, it helped my spirit so much to go home, to Hargis. I was glad for the adventure and glad for the honest time with my kids. And oh, how I needed to be Miss Chigger (my camp identity) once again! There was satisfaction in remembering the campers and all the friends I made while working there.
This day that began so hopeful, then became heavy and seemed to not want to budge finally did. With a little honesty, some raw emotions, and forgiveness, we took those rough Hargis paths, and we let them sharpen us, then bind us closer together. My children are my team. I want them on the path with me. I want to be their guide.
Later that night, after the kids were settled in bed, I felt light as a feather while I began to fall asleep myself. I thanked God for the day, and for my full heart. I thanked God for my children, who challenge me, but love me no matter what. And I thanked God for my knee, which felt strangely better, numb even. I felt joy. I felt at peace. I did not understand it. But in that moment, I knew, even then, that Hargis had begun a healing thing inside of me. I thank God for this. I thank God for rough paths that heal. I thank God for Hargis.