Confession’s Threshold: Transgressions at Camp


Adults can certainly appreciate those teenage twists that accentuate puberty … even when two such “seniors” are an overly-driven mother and an uncle who is always at stand-by to offer a morsel from advice’s coffer. Such was the case when one of my nieces returned from her first session of sleep-away camp some ten years ago. For the sake of family unity and preservation of future holidays, I shall not mention exactly which niece.

The thirteen-year old had been gone for three weeks and, upon entering her familiar and familial domain, rushed to her room crying. Not just crying, mind you. She was sobbing uncontrollably. My sister (the girl’s mother) ran after her, intent on determining the issue, assessing the situation, and restoring order.

     “Oh mother! It’s simply awful! I feel so guilty, but I have to … “ She stopped short in fear of shocking and offending her mother. “I can’t tell you. You’ll be so disappointed in me.” Even with her mother’s reassuring prod, the girl was unable to confess the reality of her troubles.

Later that morning, my niece emerged from her room, again sobbing but seemingly with more control. “Mother, I just have to tell you. If I don’t, it will haunt me forever.” Her eyes were puffy, her face flushed with anxiety and apprehension. “Oh, I can’t. It’s simply that horrible!” She ran back to her room and locked the door behind her. Her bold tears echoed throughout the house.

This scenario repeated four or five times over the next few hours. Certainly my sister’s fears were building to a crescendo. Had my niece consumed the forbidden alcohol? Had she partaken of a destructive cigarette? Or, worse yet, smoked the fabled marijuana? (Something neither her mother nor uncle would ever have done, despite their having come of age in the increasingly “un-groovy” 1970’s.) Had she given in to carnal curiosity and teenage lust? Of course, my sister’s greatest fear was that whatever troubled my young niece involved perhaps a combination of all, creating a most regrettable trifecta.

My sister herself lit a calming smoke, poured a glass of wine, and began contemplating her next step. How could she at once reassure the girl, restore order, and re-ravel the teenage bliss of innocence (that surely had fallen awry)?

Just as my sister lifted her wine glass, my niece timidly peaked through the door.“Mother, I have to tell you. I just have to. That’s the only way the pain will go away!” My sister took a full and calculating breath as the girl continued, still trembling but numbed from all the crying.

 “Mother, I shaved my legs and I am so sorry!”

Herself reassured, my sister hugged her daughter tight, relieved that the girl was yet a child of pubescent virtue. And relieved that, once again, her worst parental fears had been averted.

“Honey, I have a terrific moisturizer. Let’s go upstairs.”

An hour or so later, my sister phoned me: “Mark, you won’t believe the afternoon I just had!” I could hear her exhale, could tell she was smoking, and knew that a compelling tale was on confession’s threshold. Naturally with three teenage daughters, such afternoons of torment and anxiety were soon to become more frequent for her. With the angst-ridden whimpers of a teenage girl, “camp” thus became another four-letter word to be dreaded.

(Image: “Self Portrait as Ornament” by Julie Heffernan, 2008.)