“Camp is going to be so cool this summer!" I leaned over the front seat as my mom drove us through southeastern Ohio toward Loudonville, past the Mohican River, down the road I knew so well from past years. I strained to see the lake beyond the rolling hills.
"You watch, Mom," I said as she got me settled into Tent No. 4 with six other girls. "This year I'm going to join the Polar Bear Club and this year I'm going to earn my certificate!"
Polar Bears got up before dawn, hiked to the lake and swam while the stars faded away. It wasn't for the faint of heart. To earn a certificate meant you showed up every single day and got all the way into the cold water. In past years, I had failed: overslept, or waded to the knees.
This year would be different. I was in junior high. Plus, Dad would be at camp as guest minister and had agreed to do it with me. In my excitement, I barely saw Mom and my little sister wave goodbye as the Buick disappeared in camp road dust.
Mom's parting advice echoed in my head as I ran to find Dad. "Let the other kids have a chance, Anne. He's there for everyone, not just you." I reluctantly agreed to forgo extra time or favors during the week. Still I was proud to be his daughter. I had defined myself by him.
"You look like your mother but act like your father," a church lady confided to me one day while she waited to shake his hand at the sanctuary door. I beamed. My mom was beautiful, but I thought the greater compliment was being compared with my dad.
Dad took us to the A&W for frosty mini-mugs of root beer in our jammies. Dad helped us catch lightning bugs and taught us to play flashlight tag. Dad had riddles and jokes.
Dad always put his warm hand on my forehead and prayed for me at bedtime. Used to — until a few months earlier when my parents had separated. On a cold January morning my sister and I hugged him goodbye and followed my mother out of the house. "This is a trial period," Mom said as we unpacked boxes in our new apartment. "I need time away from your dad. I need you to understand."
The days dragged until I found myself running down the camp path to find Dad, asking him, "Are you ready to go swimming tomorrow morning?" I was breathless.
When he said "You bet!" I knew everything would work out.
All week Dad and I enjoyed our Polar Bear treks to the beach. I collected brown-eyed Susans and flat skipping stones as we walked and talked. At the water, Dad would holler like an Indian warrior, peel off his T-shirt, race across the sand and dive into the glassy lake. Not me. I crept along inch by inch until the water was chest-high, then held my nose and dunked under at the last possible second with Dad floating nearby, coaxing me along. Only then would we swim out to deep water.
On the last camp day, Dad was quieter than usual. We walked the two-lane dirt road toward the lake through an old farm field. The purple sky turned rose and lightened the meadow. Dew landed on my knees from brushing past tall grasses and wildflowers. Our shower shoes slapped in synch. Mine were yellow to match my first two-piece swimsuit.
Just as I started to enthuse about almost being a Polar Bear, Dad cleared his throat and put an arm across my shoulders. "Annie, there's something I have to talk to you about," he said. My stomach tightened. We had managed all week without the D-word.
"Yeah I know. It's a trial period." My voice sounded childish. My face warmed. A fog misted ahead. "Look, Dad — you can't even see the raft." I pointed toward the lake but he wasn't sidetracked.
He stopped walking and kneeled in front of me. "Anne, it looks like the divorce is going through this summer." His voice was as quiet as grace.
For a second I teetered between ignorance and understanding. "Do you mean going through or falling through?"
"Your mother and I will be divorced this fall." He let it sink in. He said he didn't want it that way but I had already turned and walked so he wouldn't see me crying.
At the lake, I wanted him to run and yell like normal even though I wasn't in the mood. "Go on," I said. "I don't want to be a Polar Bear anymore." But Dad stayed by my side as the other kids shouted and swam, jubilant to have made it.
Mom came to pick me up after lunch. When we got home it was to another house in a new town where we would establish lives without my father.
Little by little I lost the things I collected that summer: flip-flops, skipping rocks, dried wildflowers. Little by little I have understood the chagrin I felt that morning was probably nothing compared to the pain my dad must have had.
Somewhere I still have my Polar Bear certificate, though. Lately when I have thought of it, I like to think that Dad still has his, too: a remnant from our last morning of camp. I picture it buried in his study under years of theological debris, still entwined with the courage and love he demonstrated as he took my hand and plunged with me into a club neither of us cared to join.
Anne Visser Ney lives, writes and works in St. Petersburg.