Thursday, July 4, 2024

Summer Camp by Julie Christen


Niece Elise and Josie the Aussie (2024)                 Order a copy today here!

    I had my niece come stay at our farm for a week. She's ten years old, and this was her second summer at Christen Horse Camp. I never had kids of my own, so I tend to gush a bit on my sisters' and brother's kids. You know, sugar them up and send 'em home. 

    When I was a kid, Mom and Dad did the same thing - they would send each of us kids to stay at Grandma and Grandpa's place for two weeks. We were kind of lucky because both my mom's folks and my dad's folks lived pretty close to each other out in Sheldon and Alice, ND. Two of the tiniest towns you ever will find. But it really had nothing to do with the towns. Our visits were all about life on the farm and experiencing a world so very different from our little house across the street from Little Detroit Lake in Minnesota. And even though we, as a family, traveled out there practically every other weekend throughout the school months, spending time alone - no parents, no little brothers, no older sisters - was a whole other experience.

    Each of us kids got our own week with one set of grandparents. So say I went to Grandma Ruth and Grandpa Richard's (my Dad's Wavra side) place first, while one of my sisters or brothers went to Grandma Olive's and Grandpa Frank's (my Mom's Spiekermeier side). Then after a week was up, we would all meet at the cafĂ© in Enderlin and swap out. 

    Both places had their own unique features, and we did very different things.  Grandma Ruth's and Grandpa Richard's was a tiny crop farm with an itty-bitty house. The house had a living room and a kitchen/dinette. The only bedroom was in the scary, stonewall basement with the only bathroom and old-time washing machine complete with a careful-or-it'll-crush-your-hands electric wringer. I slept upstairs on the hide-a-bed, thankfully, but I could still hear the snoring coming from down there every night. 

    While Grandpa Richard worked out in the fields every day, I would help Grandma Ruth hang laundry, weed the garden, and bake cookies. She bought the "fun" sugar cereal like Sugar Pops and Froot Loops too. What a treat! She also gave me nice drawing paper so I could mail in a picture to be displayed on the Fargo evening newscast during the weather bit. Made me feel like a celebrity. 

    One of the neatest parts of staying there was playing in the bunkhouses. This farm had no animals (to my dismay), but the old bunkhouses (once used long ago for migrant workers) were more magical to me than Lewis Carroll's wardrobe! They were filled with old toys, clothes, wigs, trunks, and even a creepy mannequin that received many-a-make-over by me. I swear, every time I entered one of the three bunkhouses, I would find new treasures to imagine with.

    Just a short 45-minute or so drive away was Grandma Olive's and Grandpa Frank's farm. They had cattle, pigs, cats, a dog, and chickens! So many outbuildings and haybales to climb around in. Grandma let me feed the chickens the slop pail from under the sink every day. I would collect eggs with her and watch how she handled them. I'd tell her all the names I'd given each one, but I don't think she remembered them. 

    Since Grandma Olive spent so much time in the kitchen getting meals ready for whoever would be coming for dinner or supper, I had a ton of time to go exploring. Into the cottonwood treeline, I'd go. I built forts, identified birds and their songs, hunted for berries, and read my Black Stallion books out there. Bachi the big, fury, wolf-like farm dog and I would wander down shelter belt paths lining the fields and pastures. I'd stir up the freshest cowpies ever on those hikes. 

    In the evenings, we played cards and watched the news. I had my own room upstairs with a pretty poster bed and gauzy curtains that swayed from the open window that overlooked the tidy, fenced-in front yard. I remember listening to the mourning doves as the sun rose and sitting at a little desk to write in my journal.

    Little did I know just how many of all these memories would find their way into my first novel Nokota Voices someday. Reading my own book takes me back to all of it.

    I started my own summer camp somewhere back around 2004. My oldest niece was nine. I remember worrying that she might get homesick, but we tried just a long weekend, and she did fine. Each year after that, I got a little better at entertaining, and she got more and more comfortable staying. Since then, all of my nieces have come for a custom-fit version of summer camp with me.

    We sip coffee and hot cocoa while we read a book out loud on the porch in the morning, and sometimes we do our hair together and try on some make-up. Then we walk Nester the donkey with the dogs. We do a lot of horseback riding and grooming too (lot-o-braids). We go for bike rides and hang out with the chickens learning each of their names. We make crafts, bake, cook, and watch a ton of Heartland

    The girls always help with chores: sweep the barn (which can easily turn into a dance party if we crank up the music), scoop the poop, weed the gardens and flowerbeds. They also practice driving the tractor and the riding lawn mower. Sometime, if they're old enough, my husband gives them a ride on the Harley!

    I'm exhausted by the end of the stay, but it's the best tired I could ask for. 



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