Meet: Summer Camp Friends

Writer Melanie Conklin shares the heartbreaking story of a girl she met one summer over twenty years ago…

“Big Mac, filet o’ fish, quarter pounder, french fries! Icy cokes, thick shakes, sundaes and apple pies!”

This was the anthem of my summer days at Camp Keyauwee, a sleep-away Girl Scout camp in the middle of nowhere, North Carolina. Even though I was deemed “not Brownie material” due to an unfortunate incident making a stadium cushion (I asked someone’s little brother to test drive mine and stitched it to his shorts), I attended Girl Scout camp every summer.

The author and her younger sister at Camp Keyauwee, 1988

The first night was always rough. During the day, I was as gung-ho as everyone else, but as soon as the sun dipped towards the horizon, I got a twinge in my stomach. When the crickets started chirping, that twinge got so intense it drove me to overcome any hesitation I might have about making new friends. A whispered conversation in the dark kept my tears at bay long enough to fall asleep.

I rarely knew anyone in my tent prior to camp. Still, I made friends. Some girls were lonely, too. They made good buddies at the pool or on the walking trail. Others were like celebrities, peddling secret talents or special attributes the rest of us could not help but covet. There was one girl I recall, whose famed total of three fully-grown pubic hairs at the age of eleven held us all in awe.

But there’s only one friend I made at camp whom I’ll never forget: Lia. The first time I saw her, Lia was sitting alone on the edge of the pool. She could not have been more alone, even though everyone around her was acutely aware of her presence. And not because she was black, which was rare enough at a Girl Scout camp in North Carolina, but because she was missing nearly all of her fingers and toes.

I had a reputation for speaking before thinking, and when I swam past Lia and saw what everyone else had already noticed, the question popped out of my mouth before I could clamber to the edge of the pool.

“What happened to your toes?” I asked, incredulous. Then my eyes drifted up towards her face, and I saw her fingers were missing as well. “And your fingers, too?”

Lia’s face was stony, but I was oblivious. I hopped out of the pool and plopped down on the searing cement next to her. I remember she was slow to talk, but my curiosity was unstoppable. I wanted to know if she’d been born that way, or if she’d been in some kind of terrible toe and finger chopping accident. What on earth could cut off just your digits?

Eventually, after I wouldn’t go away, she told me.

“My brother did it.”

She said it so quietly I thought for sure I’d misheard. I’m deaf in one ear, so I also had a reputation for not listening as well as saying too much.

“What do you mean? Was it an accident?”

I remember what she did next so clearly, even twenty years later. She hauled her slender brown leg out of the water and propped her toeless foot on the pool’s edge. Her finger nubs traced a stretched, zig-zaggy line that wrapped around the center of her calf.

“He tried to cut off my leg, too. But they stopped him.”

My young mind could not process this idea. Where was her mother? Why would her brother do this? What was wrong with him? How would she ever be normal? But only one question seemed the most urgent to ask at that moment.

“Did they put him in jail?” I held my breath, waiting to hear the answer. My greatest fear to that point had been getting a bad grade. Never, ever had I known that there were people like Lia’s brother out in the world.

She nodded solemnly. “Yeah.”

Later in the week, a bunch of us girls were filling our afternoon with a favorite activity: painting our nails. Lia was off in her tent, reading alone. I wandered over and asked her if she wanted to paint her nails, too. I had noticed that a couple of her remaining stubs sported little, teeny tiny nails on the ends. The nails were mysterious, but somehow right. Her body was trying to un-do the terrible thing that had happened to her.

We sat on her bunk, and painted the tiny nails. She watched me paint mine, and then we just lay there, waiting for them to dry, staring up at the dull tan roof of the tent and listening to the sound of the woods.

Melanie never saw Lia again after that week, though she thinks of her often. You can read more about Melanie at http://www.melanieconklin.com/

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8 thoughts on “Meet: Summer Camp Friends

  1. Great story. I’m sure you’ll never know it, but I bet it was a memory and lesson to some of the girls who were just watching the exchange by the pool as well.

  2. I know it’s unrelated, but my younger daughter likes to make fast-friends wherever she goes. We just got back from a vacation, and she has a new pen pal in the Chicago area. Thanks for sharing this poignant piece.

  3. Thank you for your kind remarks, everyone! It’s very interesting to note that as a child, I wasn’t looking for an opportunity for compassion. I just followed my curiosity and didn’t even think about the social implications of befriending someone so different. It’s a good reminder, I think, to us adults, to worry less about what we should do or say and just follow our hearts. It’s easy for your heart to get lost in the shuffle these days, isn’t it?

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