So what do you call the best week of the year?
For the Rowes, it’s Family Camp.
For 33 years we’ve been gathering annually in late July at a county park outside Wheeling, WV, for a week of extended time together.
In 1981 there were just 22 of us; this year nearly 50 from four generations gathered: Mike’s parents and most of their 7 kids/spouses, 22 grandkids/spouses and 30 great-grands. Sister Jeannine calls the mix “Seven Layer Cake.” According to the family birthday list Poppa maintains, our three-week old granddaughter Libby is the 77th member of the clan.
So why West Virginia? Ironically, none of us live there, but it’s a median point between the east coast and the Midwest and, most importantly, affordable. We rent out all 7 cabins of 3-4 bedrooms each at Grand Vue Park, so for this one week each year it becomes the Rowe Family Compound. The kids run fearlessly from cabin to cabin always assured of having a cousin to play with.
Traditions are cherished ties that bind a family together. These days Jeannine makes the coveted peanut butter fudge that Mom Rowe is famous for, and Uncle John flips pancakes to order every Thursday morning for all comers. A dedicated group of golfers hits the links nearly every morning (at only $35 for a week’s pass!) The male cousins shoot each other in the woods with paint, air-soft guns, crossbows or the weapon du jour, and the girls make our annual pilgrimage to Gabriel Brothers for deeply discounted clothing and Wheeling Artisan Center for gifts gorgeously crafted by locals.
With seven kids in the original Rowe family, it makes shared dinner prep simple. Each family is responsible for one night. For decades, Mike’s youngest sister Lori has made taco salad on Pool Night when we reserve the Grand Vue pool for a private family party. This year taco salad was served on a Monday, prompting a flash-mob protest by the 20-somethings who arrived for dinner in their bathing suits.
Fiercely competitive games of Hand and Foot and Mexican Train are interrupted by thunder riding in over the West Virginia hills. We rush outside together to marvel at bands of color stretched across the twilight sky. At our Friday night campfire, cousins grab anything that produces sound for a country hoedown. Fiddles and ukuleles. Guitars and violins. Milk jugs and spoons.
At Pool Night this year we were surprised to discover twice the number of lifeguards on duty as we usually have – more than needful for a family overflowing with competitive swimmers.
As soon as the annual Bucket Relay and games of Sharks and Minnows began, two of the guards jumped in to join the fun. “They asked to be assigned to guard for your family,” the Camp Manager related cheerfully the next day, “because they heard what a great time you guys have together.”
It’s easy to Photoshop memories, removing the relational blemishes and wrinkles, but we know our own imperfections all too well. As a family we have survived serious car accidents and a jet hijacking, attempted murder (not of one another, though we’ve been tempted…), and life-threatening illnesses.
We know each other’s faults and foibles, public humiliations and private agonies. But those stories are not ours to tell. We share each other’s pain only with the One who can heal it.
This past Sunday as Mike and I headed west I felt the same melancholy wistfulness I do every year when Camp is over. West Virginia is almost heaven.
Family Camp is ours to experience only for a time and I hate to see it end. Yet how thankful I am for a home to return to.
Do you think the longing and the leave-taking prepare us for something greater? Someday Life Camp will end, too. The bodies the Apostle Paul calls our “tents” will have served their final purpose.
Home waits up ahead around the bend that we can’t see yet.
It will be Heaven. No almost about it.
Glory, I can’t wait.