Fathers, daughters, and perfect days in autumn
Growing up in New Hampshire means that a lot of childhood memories are framed by autumn leaves. (Courtesy of Stephanie White Ferland)
Every time the leaves start to change and the air grows cooler, I find myself consumed by nostalgia. I know this is partly attributed to vivid memories attached to autumn, especially those from childhood.
Every fall delivered fallen leaves to rake into piles or stuff into scarecrows for the front yard. It meant apple pie on my dad’s birthday and warmed cider as a treat. It was time for candied apples and pumpkin carving, filling the wheelbarrow for the wood stove and waiting for the seasonal arrival of a hand-me-down box of clothes from cousins. There would be Quaker oatmeal for breakfast and an extra blanket on the bed. All of those things happened every year. But every now and then, fall also brought a little something special. Something that happened only once, and would remain in my heart forever.
One of those was thanks to the Cheshire County YMCA. Formally organized 110 years ago, the CCYMCA has been instrumental in connecting children and families with meaningful experiences ever since. Back then, there was a father-daughter group called Indian Princesses (which was renamed Adventure Guides). Each month we met at a different house, where fathers and daughters would make a craft, have a snack, learn about the forest, and even take the occasional field trip.
We visited a small museum in Winchester filled with paintings of birds and animals, as well as a meticulously curated collection of rocks, minerals, and shells. The owner of the museum, Eugene Allen, was an artist and taxidermist, and there were even a few stuffed woodland birds and small mammals on display, most memorably a pair of orphaned fawns that hadn’t survived after their mother died.
Twice we were joined by the rest of our families on field trips. Once, when we hiked into the Chesterfield Gorge with picnic lunches in a backpack, and again when we took a scenic boat ride on the Connecticut River after visiting the Northfield Mountain Recreation and Environmental Center. But the most memorable trip was an overnight stay, in late fall, at Camp Takodah in Richmond.
The camp was deserted except for our small group of fathers and daughters. There were 11 or 12 of us in all, and we cooked hot dogs over a campfire, explored the grounds, went on a scavenger hunt, slept in sleeping bags on the wooden bunks, ate pancakes for breakfast, and strung wooden beads on rawhide to make necklaces.
As we were getting ready to leave in the morning, I picked up a small slice of wood, perhaps from the branch of a young tree that had been cut down, and told my dad I wanted to make something for my mother. I was convinced she must be feeling lonely, having been left home on her own for the night. (It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood, as a wife and mother myself, that it occurred to me it was likely she had welcomed the rare night to herself.) My dad went to his truck to get a bright red, waxy lumber crayon he kept for use in his work as a logger. With that fat angular crayon, I drew a crooked, bumpy heart on the wedge of wood and offered it up to my mother upon our return home.
A couple of years ago I found myself at Camp Takodah again, this time for an October wedding. The bride had been one of the lucky children who had experienced Camp Takodah in its full glory. The place had such an impact on her that she chose to exchange wedding vows right there in the lodge on the shore of Cass Pond.
Wandering around the grounds, while mingling with other guests and waiting for the ceremony to start, it was surreal how quickly I felt like that 9-year-old little girl again. I was standing among the pine trees and leaf litter, breathing in the memories of that precious weekend with my dad and sister. I could nearly feel the heat of the campfire at night, or the cramping of my cold fingers when I awoke, cocooned in the blue and green plaid sleeping bag. I could almost hear the laughter around the fire as we tried to toast marshmallows without burning them.
That one night at Camp Takodah was a pretty big deal for my sister and me, as my parents would never be able to afford the traditional two-week summer camp experience, and it would be our only chance to be a “Takodah camper.” We would never make summer camp friends that would last a lifetime, receive care packages and letters from home, get a camp T-shirt, or carve our initials into a tree. We wouldn’t have the chance to swim across the pond, send postcards, or try archery. We wouldn’t giggle and talk in the dark until the sounds of the woods finally lulled us to sleep. But we would make precious memories that would follow us forever.
Thanks to the CCYMCA, we would have a treasury of memories. We would have evenings with our dad, gathered with other girls and their fathers, knowing we mattered enough for our dad to make the time for us. We would get to go places and see things that otherwise might not be available.
As it always does, the arrival of fall brought memories of Indian Princesses with it. This year, however, that memory came with a bit of curiosity attached, and I did a bit of research to find out how Camp Takodah is doing these days. And, you know what? It just so happens that it offers up an annual Women’s Weekend every fall, complete with cabins and camp activities. I think I might see if I can reserve one of those wooden bunks next year. Who knows, maybe my sister will join me.
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