Pam Purdy has been on my mind for the last few days so I’d like to share a story so you’ll understand why.
In the summer of 1994 I went to a Quaker Conference with a friend that was being held in Amherst, Massachusetts. That Saturday evening we decided to skip the meetings and go to a cookout at a friend's house instead. They had invited a bunch of other people over and requested that I bring my guitar to entertain a little. After dinner I pulled out my guitar. A young woman sitting directly across the deck from me struck up a conversation after the first song.
“Wow, you really remind me of someone,” she said.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yea, when I was a kid my parents sent me to camp on Cape Cod for the summer,” she said.
I had been a camp counselor on the Cape during my college summers twenty years before.
“She had a twin sister,” she said.
My twin sister had worked at the same camp in the kitchen.
“And she played guitar just like you,” she said.
Well, I had been playing guitar since I was twelve.
At this this point I was desperately trying to figure out who this “kid” was. She would have been thirteen at the time and kids have a way of looking very different as adults.
“What was the name of this camp?” I asked. I thought there might be a slight chance there was another camper, another counselor, another camp that might be similar.
“Camp Good News,” she answered.
“I’m Kris Hillenburg!” I exclaimed.
“I’m Pam Purdy!” she jumped out of her chair.
We met in the middle of the deck in a huge hug. Every one was speechless. Stunned.
So here’s a little history . . . .
Pam came to camp in the summer of '74 not because she wanted to, but because her parents were in the middle of a divorce. When she arrived at camp she was very withdrawn. Sure, she knew what was going on. Her life was falling apart. I knew how she felt. My parents had divorced only three years before that. So I shared with her what had gotten me through.
During that summer Pam’s mother helped in the special activities I came up with, which built a unique bond within the cabin. When it came time for the kids to switch to another counselor my entire group went to the Camp Director and asked to stay with me. Truth is, they told her they wanted to go home if they couldn’t. So I had them the entire six weeks instead of three.
At the end of the summer they planned a hiking trip to Mount Washington in New Hampshire. The morning before the trip Pam’s mother came by to drop off her asthma medication. I was in the daily counselor’s meeting when she motioned for me to come out to talk with her. We stepped out on the front porch of the main lodge.
“I want to talk with you about Pam,” she began.
I got a little nervous. I wondered if I had messed up.
“At the beginning of the summer Pam was so depressed and withdrawn, I was really worried about her and how our divorce was affecting her. Now she’s made friends, she’s outgoing and she’s excited about things again. You know what the worst thing is?” she said.
“No, what?” I asked.
“I envy my own daughter.” she said placing her hand on my shoulder.
I didn’t know what to say.
And now, all these years later, here Pam and I are sitting on somebody’s deck eating hamburgers and hot dogs together.
Pam asked me if I would be willing to spend some time with her the next day. She had started her own carpentry business and was going to be repairing the front porch on an old farmhouse nearby. I couldn’t resist.
When she picked me up the next morning and I got in the car she sat there for a few minutes as if thinking and then said, “I have something to show you. I hope you don’t think it’s too weird.”
She opened up her wallet and pulled out a picture her mother had taken of the two of us from that summer. There we were, arms over each other’s shoulders, baseball caps screwed on, and looking goofy.
“I’ve carried this picture with me for twenty years,” she said. “Any time I had a tough decision to make or I was going through a hard time I’d pull it out and ask myself - what would Kris do?”
I laughed and said, “Believe me, you don’t want to know. I haven’t always made the best decisions.”
“It wasn’t that,” she said. “It was an ideal I could look up to. A higher standard.”
Pretty humbling for me to hear that.
Sadly Pam passed away April, 20th 2013. She was 51 years old. And, as is the way with things, we had lost contact again. But this week, and I can’t explain why, she’s back in my thoughts. So maybe there’s a reason. Maybe the reason is for me to share this story with you. Or maybe I’m just feeling sentimental. Could be. But let me leave you with this one simple thought.
You really never know the impact you may have on another person. Who knows, it might just change their life. I know Pam changed mine.