Belonging

Blending a family does not happen overnight. There are many aspects to consider, and much patience is required. A sense of humor helps. Along with a glass or two of something red.

Or maybe something white. Because it’s been awfully hot at family camp this week.

Sam and I started going to UCLA family camp when our boys were 3 and 5. We are big Bruin fans — between the two of us, we had three degrees from UCLA. The camp is popular, and it can be difficult to secure a spot. It took us three years applying to the lottery to “win” our spot, but the way it works is this: Once you get a week, you keep priority for “your” week (there are 10), for as long as you continue to attend. Which means that we end up vacationing with many of the same families every summer. Our kids grew up together in their groups, from the little “pooh bears” to the surly teenage “grizzly bears,” all led by talented, energetic young counselors currently attending the university. Meanwhile, we parents connect, attending faculty lectures on timely topics, or hiking, or biking or lounging poolside, all while somebody else does the cooking, cleaning, marketing and making of the beds. It is truly a vacation for everyone in the family.

When the boys were very young, they were in tears coming down the mountain after our week at family camp, newly separated from their favorite Bruin counselors and already counting the 51 weeks until we go back. One of the first questions the boys asked me after Sam died was whether we would be allowed to return to Bruin Woods, our reservation having been made under his name. When I am tempted to regret having attended law school, I remind myself that those three years were my ticket to family camp (not to mention my actual family since Sam and I met at UCLA) and worth the price of admission. And even the collateral brain damage.

Over the last 10 years, our camp families have become some of our most cherished friends. We hiked together, and my nurse friend determined whether I should get stitches when I hit my head on a climb. They took pictures of my kids when I forgot my camera. They gave me orthodontic advice and shared recipes. They cocooned me the summer after Sam’s death. They cried with me and laughed with me and cheered for my boys when they performed in the family talent show. They delighted in my engagement to Tim, and they looked at every single wedding photo the following summer. They welcomed additional sons to my brood. Together we celebrated and commiserated over our collective step-parenting steps and miscalculations.

Some of our favorite family memories come from camp. The main lodge opens to an expansive front lawn, where the kids play tag, catch, soccer, extreme dodgeball, often while parents linger over dinner. Late one summer afternoon, three charter buses pull up the driveway, and onto this lawn spills the entire Bruin football team. The team is en route back to Los Angeles after training in the San Bernardino mountains, and they stop at a place where a little bit of Trojan-bashing and a good deal of Bruin brain-washing and Eight-Clapping are daily fare. What could be better? These football players are bigger than life, and the fans are elated. Especially the dads.

My youngest son finds me after an hour or so, and he has stars in his eyes. He has been playing with two of the guys. They jumped into the lake together, they taught him to skip rocks, they played basketball. They may be elite athletes, playing Division 1 football in the Pac 12 conference, but they are also just big kids. The boys each signed my son’s shirt. On the left sleeve is Deitrich Riley’s signature. Deitrich is special to our family because he went to the same high school as my sons, and we watched him play ball under the Friday night lights. On my son’s right sleeve is the signature of Anthony Barr (a linebacker who was selected in the first round of this year’s NFL draft).

My boy was so excited that he didn’t even think to take his cell phone out of his pocket before jumping into the lake. I couldn’t have cared less. (My kid does not have a smart phone, or I might have cared a smidge more.) It is an experience he will remember fondly for a very long time, and I suspect he will keep that shirt for many years, and not because of the value of any signatures but because it carries the memory of a magical afternoon, when heroes he’d only heard about landed on the lawn, lifted him on their shoulders and taught him to skip rocks on a lake at sunset.

Unfortunately, the shifting school calendar has been threatening the viability of our week at family camp. Do not get me started on this — just because some people have kids taking Advanced Placement courses and want extra study time doesn’t mean that the rest of us should have to suffer. Last summer, for example, I drove two of the boys back home mid-week in order to start high school, and the youngest and I stayed for the rest of the week just the two of us. That’s how reluctant we all have been to leave our friends from camp. Honestly, I’d rather change my ob/gyn. In fact, I did, and it was less traumatic than switching our week of family camp.

This summer, none of the boys’ school schedules would accommodate our regular week at family camp, so we had to decide whether to change our week of Bruin camp or not to go at all. We changed weeks.

With excitement and trepidation and a few tears (mine this time), we head up the hill for camp. I miss my friends from our former week with an intensity that surprises me. I cannot bear to let them go. I flirt with the idea of sneaking up for a day during their week at camp while my kids are in school. Because that’s the kind of mother I am.

After a few days in our “new” week, we are acclimated (mostly) to the altitude and the change. All of us have made friends, settled into some of our favorite activities and tried a few new trails. But there’s one big upside to our having switched weeks. It is the first time that Tim and I have attended with our boys together as a blended family. Our “new” friends have met us as a family of six, and they only know us as Charlotte & Tim. It’s lovely.

Some have learned the story of the widow and the widower. It’s hard to avoid that explanation for long because two of our sons share the same first name. Upon hearing our history, several have commented: “You two seem like you’ve been together forever.” Also: “You suit each other so well.” And my personal favorite: “You belong together.”

Indeed, we feel the same.

We have met some truly lovely people this week — several who I expect will remain friends for a long time — and I already cannot imagine my life without them. We have even made dinner plans for the fall.

I have also made plans to run up to family camp for a day next week — the day before the boys start school — so we can all hug a few cherished friends in person. Because that’s the kind of friends they are.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And friends — both new and old — who you belong with.

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