My 9-year-old son, Andrew, recently went on a mini-sleep away trip with his day camp. He was gone for a total of 5 days, which is hardly anything, but it gave me a microscopic view of what many of my friends experience when their children go off to camp for the whole summer. What I felt as I prepared for Andrew’s departure was a cocktail of emotions, made up of three parts packing frenzy and one part heavy dread. Add a twist of sunscreen, stir with a tennis racquet, and shake vigorously until nauseous.
Before I knew it, I was kissing Andrew farewell. “Bye!” I called, as the bus rounded the bend, “Have a great time! Mommy’s going to have a heart attack now and wash down some aspirin with a glass or two of sauvignon blanc!”
The next morning, my friend Andie called to check in on me. She was a pro, having already survived half of her first summer with her older child at camp. “Did you check for photos yet? I bet they’ve posted some.”
“Ohmigod, you’re right! I have to go!” I exclaimed. And then I hung up on her.
Sure enough, there was Andrew, smiling at the camera. He was scaling the rock climbing wall and zipping down the zipline. He was mountain biking and fishing.
He seemed like a happy camper.
But all I could see were the long pants he was wearing.
I turned to my husband, Brett, who was standing over my shoulder, peering at the same images on our laptop. “I packed him 6 pairs of shorts. Why is he wearing long pants on the hottest day on record since 1951?”
“Who cares?” Brett said. “He’s alive!”
But my critical Mommy eye couldn’t let it go. Did he have trouble finding the shorts? Did the counselors rush him out so fast for breakfast that he only had time to grab what he could, in complete survival mode?
Happily, I can report, the next time we saw pictures of him, Andrew was holding a frog and….wearing shorts! His black and grey Adidas shorts and a Rolling Stones t-shirt, in fact.
Which he was also wearing when he stepped off the bus two days later.
Brett and I embraced our son in our driveway, grabbed his duffel bag from the back of the bus, and decided that Andrew had definitely gotten taller.
I waited a good thirty seconds before jumping in and asking whether he had, as I suspected, been wearing the same clothes for seventy-two hours straight.
“I couldn’t find my stuff!” he said. “I wrote you a letter asking you to tell me where my toothbrush and hairbrush were, because I couldn’t find them. Did you get it? Why didn’t you write back?”
No, I didn’t GET IT! And how was I supposed to help him find his toiletries through the U.S. Postal Service when he was only gone for 4 nights? I was on the verge of getting rather upset with him until I realized that Andrew has had no real prior experiences with mail (or unpacking, for that matter). My digital-aged child must think that regular, old-fashioned, snail mail works just like email, only you write it down instead of type it. And, poof, it gets there instantly!
Honestly, this child knows more about how Harry Potter gets mail via owl than about how our muggle postal system works. Sweet. Naïve. I hugged him a little harder. And then I brushed his teeth.
The next day, I got the letter.
“Letters?” My friend Casey laughed, when I told her the story. “At least you got one. My son never writes. Never. I got him that fancy camp stationery, with the check-off boxes, so that he doesn’t even have to work too hard to correspond with us, and then I pre-addressed the envelopes. And you know what I got?”
She paused here for dramatic effect. So I took my cue and said, “No, what?”
“I got a piece of notebook paper, torn out with like half of it missing. I don’t even know where he got the notebook. And on it was written three words: Send poker chips.”
“I love it!” I laughed.
“And, he put a stamp on the piece of paper, and then another one on the envelope, like they are stickers.”
The only item her son wanted for visiting day was a six-pack of Mountain Dew.
I guess all a boy needs to be happy at camp is something cool to drink while playing poker. I bet if he writes again, it will be to ask for some Cuban cigars.
A few days later, I was having dinner with a bunch of moms, all of whom have at least one child at sleep away camp. “I write to my daughter a lot,” my friend, Lisa, said. “So I just tell her what I’m doing. Like, today I went to work. This weekend, I cleaned your room, and tomorrow I’m cleaning your brother’s. Stuff like that. And you know what she wrote back after receiving a few of those?”
She paused for dramatic effect. “No, what did she write back?” We asked.
“She wrote, Dear Mom, stop writing boring letters about your life. It’s boring. Love, Lindsay.”
“No!” we laughed. Then we drank some more sauvignon blanc.
The stories kept flowing with the wine. Leila’s daughter writes in code. “She’s never texted in her life, but her writing is filled with abbreviations. Dear m + d+ z. How are u? The next time I write to her, I’m just going to throw down a bunch of letters all over the page and see if she can figure out what I’m trying to say!”
Deena had a similar experience. “Carly wrote about some girls that she’s having trouble with, but she’s got a solution. I am going to C U W (I think). “What does that mean?!” Deena wants to know. 8 grown women were around the table, several of us with advanced degrees, and we could not decipher Carly’s strategy.
Deena arrived on visiting day to discover that all fourteen pairs of her daughter’s socks were missing. Gone! “Can’t you borrow some from your friends?” She asked. Uch, Carly said, definitely not. She wanted to lose a dozen more of her own. “She can borrow someone’s bikini but not their socks? I don’t get it,” Deena mused. But of course she sent the socks.
Allie had seen photos of her son and had skipped over the Happy Camper mood, as I had, in favor of a critique. “Charlie has one green t-shirt and one green pair of shorts. Somehow, these two items found each other from the vast wardrobe I sent, and, every time I see a picture of Charlie, he’s head-to-toe green. It’s driving me crazy!”
She bet her husband that Charlie would be wearing all green on visiting day. She won.
Conclusion: the boys wear one thing all summer, while the girls prefer to dress in each other’s clothes as much as possible. In the end, most of it has to be thrown out anyway.
And while they are having the best time ever, we are worrying. (And also having a pretty good time.)
I guess the bottom line is this: are our children safe and happy? And, if so, can we accept their independent fashion decisions while simultaneously hoping for the best hygiene outcome possible? Can we believe that, come September, our happy campers will revert back to writing in complete sentences?
I’ll bet you ten poker chips, a Mountain Dew, three packs of socks, and a green t-shirt that we can.