The first time I attended Gathering, in Rochester, New York, I bathed my one-year-old daughter, Eleanor, in the bathroom sink and I nursed her to sleep in a dormitory bed, a little afraid that she might fall onto the concrete floor. It was also her first "school" (as she came to call it)—the first time she was left every morning with a caregiver other than family. The leaders and a team of attentive, loving teenagers helped Eleanor through a few tearful separations. By the end of the week, her assigned teenager was her new best friend.
Then there was the memorable road trip to the Normal, Illinois, Gathering with three-year-old Eleanor and her friends Moxie and infant Ezra, all jammed into the back seat of a sedan. Adventures included: Ezra almost choking on a raisin fed to him by a "helpful" Eleanor; being stopped by a cop after accidentally going through the EZ-Pass lane; and breaking a floor lamp at 5:00 am. A puppet named "the car goddess" ministered to the many conflicts that arose. But being held in the light of the Spirit after our arrival (sometimes in the form of a golf cart driver offering relief to tired three-year-old feet) made the journey worth every drop of sweat. This was also the summer that Eleanor learned the word "Quaker."
At Johnstown, eight-week-old Charlotte made her Gathering debut. Four-year-old Eleanor’s tantrums and willfullness were at an all-time high. Dinner time was a nightmare: luring a screaming Eleanor off the middle of the dining hall floor with an ice cream cone, the newborn Charlotte slung on my shoulder. The saving grace at that blessed Gathering was attending peaceful plenaries while Charlotte fell asleep nursing in my arms. And folk dancing with four-year-old fairies, with Charlotte snug to my belly in a sling.
At Amherst’s vast, hilly campus, with a toddler and a five-year-old in tow, the Spirit showed itself in the Friend who loaned us her double stroller, and kind cafeteria workers who let me take breakfast food back to our room for the girls. Struggles over naps were balanced by new friendships and reunions with old friends. Also, late-night heart-to-heart chats with my mother (who had come along to help me out) were a special treat.
A two-year-old’s loose bowels and chaotic bedtimes with an intense, inflexible six-year-old were some of the challenges at Blacksburg. But yet again, the Gathering held me and gave me gifts: volleyball sand for the children, and for the parents: impromptu "courtside" conversations about peaceful parenting and different meetings’ approaches to First-day school.
Traveling to Tacoma was too expensive for us, so I came to the 2007 Gathering with great anticipation and spiritual thirst. Four-year-old Charlotte stayed behind with her grandparents, and eight-year-old Eleanor’s behavioral issues disappeared. It was my first Gathering without a baby or preschooler in tow! I savored every moment of Junior Gathering staff worship, Renaissance singing, and fellowship with guitar-playing Alaskans and Minnesotans. Eleanor was ripe for all that the Gathering had to offer, and the confidence and comfort in her interactions with teenage Friends, gray-haired Friends, and every other Friend she encountered was a joy to behold.
When I watched her hug Neil (the same man who welcomed her to her first "school" seven years before) and play with the rainbow of rings on his necklace, I saw her come full circle in the embrace of the Gathering. When I watched Eleanor being guided, cheered, and literally carried by young adult Friends in a game of Capture the Flag, I saw a microcosm of the entire Gathering experience. Her confidence and affection towards Gathering Friends were the rich reward for the exhaustion and frustration I had sometimes felt at Gatherings in the past. Bringing my children to Gathering has been an investment with high returns.