The buses huff their exhaust into the morning air as clumps of kids and their parents dot the hotel parking lot. Siblings cling and moms reunite with other moms they only get to see at camp events. There are hugs and smiles. It’s not what I anticipated. Specifically, I expected tears--mine and my son’s. After all, he’s leaving home for the first time; he’ll be gone for four weeks; and the only other kid he knows is one he met briefly at a pizza party months before.
My mother-in-law told me I’d be able to tell the first year camp parents from the more seasoned ones and, looking around, I see she’s right. Worried grimaces on the newbie faces aside, wardrobes offer another clue. Parents in-the-know are dressed for tennis, golf, lunch--their post send-off plans firm. They are sneaking glances at their watches. First years, though, are a tired-looking bunch. They rub their sons backs and and offer reassuring smiles as much as to calm themselves as their children.
This scene is a yearly rite for many but is completely new to me. You see, my childhood fails both of the two “if-then” statements that would have put me here: if you live in the Northeast or if you are Jewish, then you go to sleep-away camp. My summers were not organized affairs. They were downright listless--days full of bad 80’s movies (cue Christopher Atkins in a pirate costume or Michelle Pfeiffer pining for a cool rider) punctuated by swims in the neighbor's pool and the occasional family trip to Grandma’s. It was wonderful.
But even if left my own children’s schedules open, their summers still wouldn’t look like mine. Sure, I can keep them home, but there’d be no one to play with--all of their friends are at camp. I’ve had to recalibrate my own expectations of what summer should look like and it hasn’t been easy.
My husband has been talking up camp since we met. Even my mom, though she grew up in a West Virginia coal mining town, went to one. They both still keep in touch with friends they made those summers away from home. My mom still tears when she hears “Taps” which was played at the end of each camp day. When my husband sees his pals, they reminisce about people with nicknames like “Shuffles” and “Almanac” and re-tell old stories about sneaking out or camp owner Arnie wearing a t-shirt that said “I got baked on the Vineyard” (without knowing what it meant) on parents’ weekend.
Even with all of the good press, I’m uneasy about four weeks of sleepaway camp for an eight-year-old--specifically, my eight-year-old. I know, I know, camp will foster his independence, he’ll make friends outside of our insular neighborhood, and he’ll try new things; still, I’m unconvinced. I get steamrolled when my husband invites a camp director to our home. His presentation is low-tech--a binder with photos and a list of activities. By the time he leaves, my son is ready to move in with the guy. NorthStar Camp for Boys it is. It sounds like a correctional institution.
In the weeks leading up to camp, my son confides his concerns about missing home. He looks at me with sweet innocent eyes and wonders aloud if this whole thing is a good idea. Outwardly I reassure him, but my own list of worries is long: what if he doesn’t make friends or there’s a bully or he gets injured.
I decide to call camp and speak to the director. “He’s an anxious kid,” I say. It takes me a moment to realize the irony. I imagine the camp director noting my son’s file: “anxious mother.” It reminds me of when my son was an infant and woke up one morning breathing funny. My husband and I bundled him and walked the two blocks to Children’s Memorial. The nurse gave him a once-over then discharged him with paperwork, the printed diagnosis was “normal child.” The unwritten bit was ”crazy parents.”
The weekend before my son leaves, he makes a special request: to bake something with me--alone. Meaning his sister, my usual baking companion, is out. I agree and even let him choose the recipe. Unfortunately he chooses a made-up one, a cupcake/muffin concoction he made with a babysitter while my husband and I were on a trip once. He calls them crumblers. What he hands me is a list of ingredients written in different colored markers. No measurements. No instructions.
The thing I really like about baking is my level of control. If you measure the ingredients just right, if you set the oven to the right degree, if you cook for the specified amount of time, you generally get a good result (though there are ). With baking, unlike summer camp, I know what to expect.
I would hope that after a year of my baking/blogging project, I’d be savvy enough to look at a list of ingredients and have some idea about the relative amounts needed to cobble together a passable dessert. I can’t. I would hope that after eight years of being a parent, I’d be confident enough in the lessons I’ve imparted to be able to send my child out into the “world” (if sleep-away camp represents a microcosm) without concern. I can’t.
To my son’s frustration, I cross-reference cookbooks and baking sites to get some idea of how to bake using his ingredients. He crosses his arms and says, “Mom, come on, just guess.” He wants me to let go a little; to stop planning; to stop needing to know. I try to follow his lead. We add silly ingredients to the middle of each cupcake before baking: mini M&M’s, Heath toffee bits, chocolate chips, rice krispies, Hershey’s kisses, strawberries. Once we pour the batter on top, we have no idea which is which.
I savor every moment in the kitchen with him in anticipation of his absence. I also write his first letters to camp while he’s still home so that he gets mail upon arrival when he might most need to feel connected. You can’t imagine how complicated it is to draft a simple letter to a child at camp. Advice abounds. Don’t be too overt about missing him (it might make him feel guilty that he’s having so much fun without you). Don’t tell him too much about the fun things you’re doing while he’s gone (it might make him feel like he’s missing out). Don’t talk about anything sad (it might make him, well, sad).
My letters are rollicking. At home, my son is a big fan of “yo mama” jokes. He especially loves when I tell them because I’m talking about myself. Yo mama is so ugly that people dress up like her for Halloween. Yo mama is so dumb that she tried to put her M&M’s in alphabetical order. I include a yo mama in each letter. One letter I write entirely in a numerical code with an attached decoder. It’s easy to write a letter without dwelling on missing your child when that child is right next to you.
At the makeshift bus-stop in the Renaissance hotel parking lot, he grips his backpack which holds surprises for his eight-hour bus ride: comics, Spy vs. Spy books, puzzle magazines, Mad Libs, and a tupperware full of camp crumblers. He pulls me to him and whispers, “What if I’m not ready?” I take his chin in my hand and tell him, “If you weren’t ready, we never would have agreed to let you go. You’re ready.” He smiles, relieved.
The boy that my son met at the pizza party spots him and comes over to say, “Hey, wanna put your backpack on the bus? I saved us a seat.” I feel joy. When our son emerges from the bus, he’s already holding a Simpsons comic. I imagine his bus seat filled with the dumped out contents of his backpack, an extension of his room which often looks like his dresser exploded. He has already rifled through all of our “surprises” and is suggesting that we should have gotten a “Spy vs. Spy” book by a different author. I’ll admit that it’s easier to say goodbye when you’re being chastised rather than thanked.
When they make the announcement that it’s time to go, our son turns and darts for the bus. My husband yells, “Dude, get back over here and say goodbye!” He rushes back and solemnly shakes my hand like a Senatorial candidate who has just earned my vote. Then he’s off again.
My husband and I position ourselves on the side of the bus we think he’s on and wave dumbly at the row of darkly-tinted windows. Our daughter asks which window is his and I have to admit, “I’m not sure.” She says, “Then who did you just blow a kiss to?” Again, “I’m not sure.”
Then, for just a moment, our son presses his face to a window and comes into full relief. We see the white of his headphones and realize that he’s found his ipod shuffle and is already listening to tunes (no video games allowed). It’s heartening to see that he’s made himself at home so quickly. The kid can’t pour his own lemonade, but here he is on a bus pulling away from us for four weeks, sitting next to a new friend and jamming out with a smile. Maybe we don’t give him enough credit.
As I pull out of the parking lot, I’m already anticipating hearing from him, imagining his first letter full of details about the bus ride he’s on now. I go home and wait.
(stay tuned for Part 2 early next week)
Camp Crumblers (with measurements!)
3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 cup oil
1 tsp vanilla
3/4 cup milk
Special ingredients (you choose your own): M&M’s, chocolate chips, white chips, toffee chips, fresh fruit, dry cereal, etc.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Either spray muffin pan with nonstick spray or put liners in cups. Mix all of the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking soda, salt) together. In a separate bowl, mix the wet ingredients (eggs, oil, vanilla, milk). Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir until mixed. Fill each muffin tin about halfway with batter. Add one of the “special ingredients” to the center of each tin. Finish filling each tin with batter to cover center ingredients. Bake 15-20 minutes. Have fun guessing what’s inside each and having taste tests to decide which flavors are best!