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How Jewish family camp helped me let go of my fantasy family

At a Jewish family camping retreat, her greatest achievement was telling her son he didn't have to do anything

Kveller via JTA — It was 5 p.m. on a Friday and we were following the Waze app out of Los Angeles. I was sweating because our SUV was stuffed with duffel bags and sleeping bags and three kids with ear buds jammed in their ears and the sun was setting and the camp asked – very specifically – that we please arrive before Shabbat.

Although we’re not religious, I was attempting to bond with the kids through our annual Jewish family camp experience. I had tried to get an earlier start, but the dog had to be dropped off and my husband forgot his car charger and my son needed his inhaler. So now the sun was setting and we were late, and I was having flashbacks of family camp weekend last year.

Last year, family camp had been a challenge. We’d changed our son’s medications for ADHD and thought we were in a good groove, but the stressors of packing and sitting on the 101 Freeway at rush hour with three kids in the back seat had been a rough start.

At camp, my son insisted that I organize the boys to play the “cooperative” board game, Forbidden Island, but the boys kept wandering off while my son explained the rules, and they were complicated, and he got frustrated because the kids kept disappearing to play basketball, baseball and gaga. My youngest waited in line for an hour at the ropes course and then changed her mind to great despair, and my oldest had absorbed the stress. Her dad and I were in damage control mode and it had not been relaxing. Plus, our son couldn’t sleep in his cabin because he needed to read before bed and it had to be quiet, so he’d slept in our room each night.

So here we were, a year later, making our annual family camp pilgrimage, except we were using the Waze app and we were late. My son flipped out when he heard we would arrive in the middle of dinner.

“Camp won’t let us starve,” I told him. “There will at least be peanut butter and jelly.” But this only intensified his anxiety.

Finally we pulled into camp. My son spotted the lights of the dining hall. “Do you think we made it for dinner? Do you think we made it?”

We stopped the car and let him run ahead. As he dashed off, he yelled, “Don’t forget the extra sleeping bag. You know I need to read and it’s cold and I’m going to need to sleep in your room.”

“Yes,” I nodded. “I have the bag. Go eat.” My husband and I squeezed in at a table, enjoying the singing, the wine and the company. Suddenly my son appeared, bursting with concerns about the next day. “Do I have to go to services?” he wanted to know. “Are you going to make me go? How long will they be? Do I have to do activities?”

I could feel the pit in my stomach as our familiar cycle began: my unspoken expectations – be flexible, participate, get along; his anxiety and search for reassurance; my mounting frustration; his growing tensions; our explosive confrontation; and then me, angry, upset and defeated, and my son, also angry, upset and defeated for again failing to live up to his mom’s expectations.

I was ready to launch into my answer when in the bright light of the dining hall, I looked into his face. I saw dark eyes behind blue-rimmed glasses, rumpled brown hair, a clenched jaw and dry lips in serious need of ChapStick. Suddenly a switch inside me flipped. Was it divine intervention? Was I closer to God at Jewish camp? Were the matriarchs sending me a message? I have no idea. I just know I heard myself say something very different than my usual.

“You know what? You don’t have to do anything,” I said. “I’m just glad you’re here. I just want you to have a good time. I just want us to have a good time as a family.”

His jaw relaxed and he said, “OK, Mom.” Then he leaned over and laid his head on my shoulder. For a few precious seconds I rested my cheek against his hair. Then he straightened up and bolted for the door. Just before he left, he yelled, “Do you think there’ll be s’mores?”

I didn’t see him again that night. I caught only glimpses of him the rest of the weekend. He never came to our room. The extra sleeping bag lay in the corner, still in its roll.

Sunday morning, we gathered for a group photo. The five of us – my husband and me, our two daughters and our son – sat side by side in the grass. Over the weekend I’d seen my teen huddled in a circle among other teens, my youngest painting a canvas, and my son deep in a card game with the boys from his cabin. I noticed that they weren’t at services or activities or appreciating the splendor of nature – but they were smiling. They’d made new friends. And I learned a huge lesson. That weekend, I finally let go of my “fantasy family” – my vision of how the five of us should be – and just embraced how we were. We were imperfect but doing the best we can and we were enjoying the weekend – together.

About the Author
Robin Finn is an author, essayist, advocate and health care writer.
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