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My mother’s family has gathered at a campground in Kananaskis, Alta., every summer for the past 16 years or so, a get-together largely due to the efforts of my Aunt Daphne.
FamCamp, as the gathering is known, started the summer after Daphne’s wedding. At the time there were five siblings and their partners on Daphne’s side of the family – my mother, Daphne, two more sisters, one brother – and 12 cousins. The relationship between my mother and her siblings was not always easy, so a gathering of all of them together, as at Daphne’s wedding, was rare.
Nevertheless, they embraced her proposal and all showed up at Sundance Campground that summer. Late in the evening at the end of that first weekend, several of them gathered around the fire and decided they should do it again. Make it an annual thing, a new tradition. The same weekend every year, so everyone could plan for it.
Daphne was always the instigator for FamCamp and generally did the booking for everyone. Over time, a certain rhythm emerged. Uncle Rob always arrived a day early and stayed a day later than everyone else, so there was a home hearth to gather around when arriving and when packing up to leave. Meals were shared, the siblings split up the responsibility. As the cousins grew up, cooking teams developed, with multigenerational family units pairing up to share responsibility for their designated meals.
Cousins started bringing partners and, later, children of their own. There are now 11 of the grandchildren generation who have had FamCamp since birth – every year they expect to play in the woods, to fish in the river and to see the older generation of second cousins, great-aunts and uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents. Extended family and best friends of all generations are welcome, and some family members only come for day trips.
I’ve lived in other provinces for most of the past 16 years and have only attended a handful of times. Daphne always made sure I knew when it was happening though and managed to make me feel welcome without making me feel guilty for missing it. When I did attend, she made a special effort to seek me out amongst the crowd and ask about my life. “Miss Margery,” she’d say with a smile, “how are you?” She listened deeply and pulled real answers out of me, not just the easy, “Oh, everything’s fine.” Of my mother’s siblings, I saw Daphne the least often growing up, but our adult visits forged a rare closeness that I have treasured.
When the oldest grandkids were small, Daphne spent the year leading up to the gathering looking for toys and other items in thrift stores. She filled up purses and packs, one for each grandchild, and hid them in the woods for the little ones to find on their first morning in camp. These now-preteen kids still talk about the pack fairy with a certain gleam in their eye.
But it’s not all fun and games. Nearly every FamCamp comes with pain. Violence experienced as children left my mother and her siblings coping with the impacts of trauma. Many of the wounds they suffered have healed, while many more are still deeply felt and easily revived. When they get together old pressure points are inevitably rubbed. I know there is real love there, but they have each spent years of their adulthood barely speaking to one another – reverting, I think, to childhood survival strategies of choosing distance over direct conflict, working hard to avoid any honest expression of anger. In my limited FamCamp experience, it is not uncommon for sibling smiles to be shared through gritted teeth, rather than relaxed joy.
And yet, every year, they keep coming back. Eventually, over the course of the weekend, real smiles do happen and cheek-to-cheek selfies are taken. The deep hurts are rarely, if ever, acknowledged. Slowly, maybe new memories will start to outweigh the old. And maybe, occasionally, over a crackling fire, real hurts are acknowledged, too.
Daphne didn’t make it to FamCamp in the summer of 2019. She was going through chemotherapy and her immune system was too vulnerable for a large gathering. She died on Dec. 24, 2019, at the young age of 56.
We all knew her condition was terminal, but Daphne had kept such a positive attitude that it shocked us all when she was suddenly in palliative care. For those few hospital weeks, her siblings didn’t leave her side. They took turns staying with her overnight, dozing on the armchair in her hospital room when they weren’t soothing her from medication-induced dreams or bringing her water when she woke.
Daphne’s memorial was postponed, first to avoid people travelling on winter roads and then because of COVID-19. As July approached last year, it wasn’t clear whether FamCamp would happen either. But the siblings had already booked their trapper’s tents and I don’t think any of them could quite bear the idea of skipping camp the same year as losing Daphne. So a smaller group than normal gathered. They spread some of Daphne’s ashes at a bend in the Kananaskis River that she particularly loved and held a small ceremony to honour her.
I keep asking myself why I didn’t make the effort to go more often. Every year I thought, “maybe next year.” Now I realize, there may not be a next year.
As this summer approached, the siblings started planning even without Daphne to get things started. Pandemic uncertainty and travel restrictions made booking the usual campsite impossible, but a smaller gathering may yet happen at another location. I am hopeful the clan will return to Kananaskis in force one day.
Margery Pazdor lives in Vancouver.
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