At Aspen Grove’s Single-Parent Family Camp, a single mom and her children explore a world outside their comfort zone.
As we curve up the mountainside in the family wagon, I take in the view. Dropping off to our left is a vista of pine, scrub oak, and aspen. Snow is drizzled through the tree line, but the first blue breath of wildflowers has come to the meadows. The birds are singing, the stream is bubbling, and my kids are agitated.
They aren’t bothered by the narrow switchbacks, the ear-popping altitude, or the travel time. That’s all familiar territory. But this weekend we have been invited to attend the Aspen Grove Single-Parent Family Camp. Not familiar territory.
“We’re sharing a cabin with strangers?” asks Clark, my 10-year-old.
“Yeah,” says Dylan, 13. He has spoken in monosyllables since his birthday.
“What if it’s . . . awkward?” asks Jessie, my 16-year-old daughter.
Seven-year-old Luke looks out the window at the mountain. I’ve promised him swimming, and it looks like rain. He mumbles something about his squirt gun.
I smile and act like I know what I’m doing—this is my standard operating procedure. But I have to admit I feel a little out of my comfort zone too, which is also part of my standard operating procedure. I’m a divorced mother in a church that focuses on forever families. My life is all about living outside the comfort zone.
Which is one reason why for 10 years Aspen Grove Family Camp has been inviting single parents, through bishops of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to come for a weekend of quality family time, virtually free of charge. It’s a generous gift for families that have lost something.
I say, “Hey, this is going to be great! This will be a chance to meet some new kids and hang out in the mountains all weekend. No dishes, no yard work.”
Right, I assure myself. It’ll be great. We’ll share a weekend with other families outside “the zone”—48 hours of rest, relaxation, and reflection. What could possibly be bad about that? But there is a part of me that wonders: Will sharing the common bond of loss make my family feel better or worse?
Not the Only One
As we enter the dining hall, I see that the vast majority of diners are mothers and their school-age kids, with a few dad-led families sprinkled in. Large windows fill the room with the dappled light of evening in the mountains. The hall is full of cheerful voices and the clatter of dinner being served.
Jessie says, “It smells good in here.”
“Yeah,” says Dylan. He scans the buffet lines and the tables for consumable carbohydrates. I see it in his eyes: “Mashed potatoes and gravy. I’m in business.”
“Hey,” says Clark. “There’s Matthew
. . . and Kylie . . . and Andrew.”
Before long, all of my children have recognized at least one person from school. Most of these families live within an hour’s drive so that travel is not an additional burden. And, as this dining hall attests, there is no shortage of local single-parent households.
“That’s so funny,” says Jessie, as she identifies another acquaintance from school. “At school nobody ever says their parents are divorced, so it seems like I’m the only one.”
We sit next to a beautiful young woman and her son. She is younger than most of the parents and one of the few women with only one child. Her boy and Luke are soon sharing Luke’s squirt gun back and forth. His mother gives her son an exhausted smile and tells him to eat his dinner. It occurs to me that what I have in common with this woman is not that we are single parents, but simply that we are parents—mothers, women—trying to get our kids to eat in the midst of all this excitement. “Luke,” I say. “Put the gun in your pocket until after dinner.”
Luke frowns at me, then puts the gun on the seat where he and his new comrade can both see it. They smile at each other in complicit subversion. The boy’s mom and I smile at each other too.
One of the main benefits of the retreat, in addition to giving families time together, is allowing parents and kids an opportunity to compare notes. The weekend is divided between family time and age-group time. When my kids are off with their peers—kicking soccer balls, painting ceramic fish, and performing death-defying tricks on the ropes course—I am with my peers too.
The adults are invited to enjoy the range of Aspen Grove crafts and sports, but we also have the option of attending two lectures led by Byron Merrill (BA ’72), a BYU associate professor of ancient scripture. At one point, Professor Merrill asks the group how we find personal peace. The room erupts with impassioned comments. People’s heads nod in “me too” rhythm. Thankfully, things don’t descend into a therapy session; instead there’s a kind of “in the trenches” kinship that fills the room.
Outside on the mountain, the kids have their own trenches. A cluster of teenagers sit next to the rappelling wall talking about music, each other, and how great it is to get away from the pressures at home. Not far away younger kids navigate the obstacle course. The kids cheer as one boy is able to cross the log and turn it back for another to follow behind. No one is talking about life at home; they’re just having a good time. But the message is clear: you can go farther with other people than without them.
Ironically, one of the highlights of the weekend for me is the time we spend holed up in our multi-family lodge, playing board games with other families. I’m inspired by the women I meet. On the first night, despite having worked and packed and traveled all day, these moms somehow manage to prop themselves up for endless rounds of Sorry and Frog Tennis. Our kids are of varied ages, but they soon play together like cousins. We share snacks and stories. It smells like blankets and little bodies. There is no room in the cabin for the awkwardness my tribe feared.
Late that night, when my kids and I have moved our game playing to the bunk beds, Jessie says, “Fig Newtons, Go Fish, and you guys. It just doesn’t get any better than this.” I agree, but I still want her Muddler Minnow card.
Throughout the weekend we meet up with our lodge family at various activities, including at the swimming pool. Jessie is attacked by Luke’s band of merry men in the baby pool. Dylan and Clark play tackle water polo with other boys they have met. It’s raining, so I am content to shiver on the sidelines with the other pansy adults.
On Sunday morning the rain turns to snow. The clouds settle into camp, giving it a quiet, otherworldly feel. The kids run outside in their shorts and bare feet. They have a snowball fight where everyone has fun and nobody ends up mad or crying. So it’s not exactly like family, but close enough.
There is a serious side to this retreat. One pair of boys I see never talk to anyone but each other. If the chip on their shoulder were physical, it would require emergency surgery. I talk to one mom with handicapped children who doesn’t participate in the planned activities so she can spend precious time hiking with her older kids. Some of the children eat with a nervous vengeance that outstrips the children I have worked with at the food bank.
Whatever your story, being a single parent is not for sissies. The emotional and financial devastation is real, but judging by the smiles I see throughout the weekend, a family vacation goes a long way toward energizing a flagging spirit.
We conclude Sunday morning with a testimony meeting full of humor and tears. One woman says she’s going to wait until she gets to the other side to get remarried. “I figure if he makes it where I’m going, it’s safe to marry him.” One of the four fathers at the retreat says, “I finally know what it would be like to attend Women’s Conference.” A woman’s preschool-aged daughter snitches bread from the sacrament table as her mother concludes her testimony. Her mother turns to the chuckling congregation and says, “Welcome to my world.”
My children and I have certainly felt welcomed. Sitting in that testimony meeting, I don’t feel outside any zone. I feel inside a family, inside a church, inside a place where people care. The people at Aspen Grove care enough to provide this weekend for me and other people like me. The people I’m sitting beside care enough to spend time with their families and make the best of genuine challenges. That’s a group I’m proud to be part of.
As we prepare to leave the camp, Dylan turns to me, smiles, and speaks in relaxed, complete sentences. “Thanks for bringing us, Mom. This was fun. I had a really great time.” He follows up by giving me a quick hug and voluntarily packing his siblings’ suitcases to the car. I wonder momentarily if I’ve left my comfort zone and entered the Twilight Zone. If I have, I like it here.
I believe Jessie’s right. It just doesn’t get any better than this.
Kristen Chandler teaches writing part-time in the BYU Honors Program.
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BYU’s Mountain Retreat
Tucked away behind Mt. Timpanogos, the Aspen Grove Family Camp and Conference Center invites students, alumni, and friends to relax and rejuvenate in a haven of pines and aspens. The camp is operated by the BYU Alumni Association and hosts a well-known family camp program, providing week-long family vacation packages each summer.
But the family camp is just one of many events supported by Aspen Grove. Since the building of a new conference center in 2000, Aspen Grove has transformed from a summer stomping ground to a year-round attraction. Among the off-season programs are marriage retreats, youth conferences, and professional meetings. The mountain scenery serves as a rustic backdrop, while Aspen Grove’s crew (a core of full-time staff supported by a host of BYU students) serves up everything else.
Accommodations are available for families, nonprofit organizations, church groups, and schools. Aspen Grove boasts a myriad of amenities, including spacious lodges and cozy cabins, a conference center, a dining hall, and a craft center, as well as a pool, tennis courts, a ropes course, a miniature golf course, and cross-country skiing trails.
INFO: alumni.byu.edu/aspengrove; 801-225-9554
Enjoying a Romantic Marriage Getaway… Alone
By Erin Olsen Gong (BA ’06)
Undeterred by a sick husband and a snowy mountain, a young wife rekindles her marriage through Aspen Grove’s married-student retreat.
The meandering canyon road mixed my anticipation and trepidation the morning I wound closer to BYU’s Married-Student Retreat at Aspen Grove, a wedding band on my finger and a sick husband at home.
For weeks we had been planning to attend this retreat, exclusive to BYU’s married-student population, but my husband caught winter’s cold, chilling the enthusiasm for our weekend getaway.
Leaving him tucked in bed, I faced a singly awkward situation amidst second-honeymooning couples. At least we had only registered for the daytime package—two meals, a relationship lecture series, and cross-country skiing—instead of the bed-and-breakfast option.
With subsidized price tags, both the overnight and daytime-only packages make attractive deals for struggling students, and it is no surprise that I was one of more than 100 students participating in the retreat, which is offered twice each February. Mustering my courage, I crunched across the snow-covered walkway into a lodge brimming with couples, waffles, and hot chocolate.
Picking a dining table was reminiscent of lunchtime on the first day of school. I searched the room for a familiar face; finding none, I chose the nearest table. Over plates piled with waffles, strawberries, and crisp sausage, I met Jan Marie Bradford Cannon (BA ’97) and Andrew G. Cannon (BS ’02), married five years with two children (conveniently left behind with Grandma and Grandpa). Andrew is a law student at BYU, and they looked grateful for the brief weekend reprieve, as did several other couples I saw that day. Couple after couple radiated excitement for marriage and for each other.
Tifani Stewart Dustin (’07) couldn’t suppress her infectious grin, though her husband, Joshua K. Dustin (’07), donned a more reserved visage. “The retreat is a good deal,” said Tifani. “I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t do it. When do you get a romantic night getaway? You don’t! It’s just a good excuse to go.”
Later I asked if they would come again, and Joshua’s hesitant answer started a playful tête-à-tête with Tifani.
“There is no doubt in my mind.”
“If it snows that day.”
“No. We are going and you know it.”
I didn’t plan for it to happen, but these couples’ enthusiasm bubbled over into my seemingly empty pot. My angst and annoyance at being single for a day melted like the Wasatch snow under warming afternoon rays.
The retreat speaker, Douglas E. Brinley (PhD ’75), added to the good feelings with his humor and insight. A professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU, Brinley focused his two lectures on marital intimacy and gospel living in marriage. His entertaining style invited couples to reflect on serious subjects in a relaxing atmosphere.
“In marriage, we need to live the gospel,” he said. “We’re going to be humble enough to solve our problems together. We’re going to be each other’s therapist.”
Figuring therapy for one was better than therapy for none, I took notes on Brinley’s lectures and thought of a few relationship changes my husband and I could work on later.
For me, the retreat concluded with a delicious lunch of lemon chicken and veggies. Afterwards, other couples geared up for cross-country skiing while I arranged to redeem our ski passes later and headed back to the car.
I sailed down the mountain road with the sun on my face, the wind in my hair, and the radio playing a favorite song. The getaway had rejuvenated my part of the marriage, and now it was time to help the other half.