It’s June. Time for swimming pools and lightning bugs and baseball and yard work and afternoon thunderstorms…and camp.
Most every summer of my childhood and into young adulthood included at least one week of camp. Some of the best memories and most important moments of my life took place under a pavilion or in a cabin or on a hike.
Then I grew up. I had children. I took a break from camp. A long, long, long-long break. But after a 20-year hiatus, I decided to go back. A nine-hour ride in a noisy kid-filled van. Seven days in a cabin with 8-year-old girls. The smell of teenage boy sweat permeating everything. Heat. Mosquitoes. Snakes. Metal-framed thin-mattress bunk beds. It was pretty great.
In preparation for my return to camp counseling, Kacey bought me “The Coolest Mother’s Day Gift of All Time!” A camp survival kit: Red hoodie, red hairdryer, red water bottle, red electric fan, red rain poncho . . . you get the idea.
Now, while the gift itself may not seem like the coolest of all time, the sentiment behind it does. Maybe I should tell the whole story…
Kacey was a wee little thing. Seven to be exact, and she was going to camp for the first time. She was uber-excited. Chattered about it every day. Friends, swimming, sports, singing. Summer camp was right up her alley.
Being a super cool mom, I got her all matchy-matchy stuff for camp. I bought pink towels to match her pink sheets and the pink buttons I hand-sewed onto her yellow blanket. We even bought a pink Rubbermaid container to use in place of a suitcase and puff-painted her name on the top.
We prepped in practical ways as well. I taught her how to do her own ponytail. We worked on it for days and days so she could get it just right and be the cutest little princess at camp. We talked about hanging wet clothes on the line outside. We practiced tying up her sleeping bag. I rolled up her clothes so they wouldn’t wrinkle, and labeled them according to each day. Shorts and tops rolled together with clean undies on the outside (so they could be easily gotten first, as she would be showering each night BEFORE bed, per my instruction, thus keeping her sheets and her pj’s clean all week). Anyway, her clothes were rolled into 6 little rolls, one for each day of the camp week and secured with matching socks and scrunchies to complete her ensembles. She was set for a perfect week of camp cuteness.
Sunday afternoon came, and we drove to camp and got registered. We met her counselor, got her bed made and her shelf organized with towels and toiletries, and her container tucked under her bed. At 112 muggy degrees in the shade, I opted not to stay for the entire afternoon. I gave her a hug and told her goodbye.
A look of panic swept over her little face. “You’re not staying with me?????” No, honey, mommy is going home to take care of your baby brother, but I will be back to pick you up on Friday evening. (What we have here is a failure to communicate. I ASSUMED she knew I wasn’t staying. SHE assumed I would be playing Robin to her Batman in the adjoining bunk all week.) As I got in the car and backed out, I caught my baby girl’s face in the rear view mirror… crying. CRYING??? My baby doesn’t cry. Oh, what kind of mother am I? But I KNEW in my heart she was going to love camp. I blew her a kiss and drove off into the sunset.
I sent her goofy letters all week. Some written backwards so she would have to read them in the mirror. Some in multiple envelopes with only one word per page. I even sent her ice in a baggie so she could “stay cool”. But I could not get the image out of my head of those tears streaming down her cheeks as I left her.
It was the longest week ever. Friday evening did not arrive any too soon. I drove back up the gravel road to camp, envisioning Kacey running to meet me (ponytail bobbing, wearing the cute little polka-dot fish outfit that was labeled for Friday), happy she had stayed, but happier to see me. Instead, she was nowhere to be found. I checked the tennis court, the bath house, the dining hall, the back of the milk containers…but she was still missing. I went on to her cabin and loaded her things into the car. Alone. Her belongings were just as we had practiced. I was so proud. Clean. Organized. Pink Rubbermaid box tightly closed…
with all her clothes still neatly packed, rolled, and scrunchy-wrapped!
I stuck my head out of the cabin door just in time to catch a glimpse of somebody’s nasty little child wearing… wearing the same outfit my daughter was wearing when I dropped her off 6 days before!!! Only much, much, much, much much dirtier. And this urchin had black fingernails and a grubby face and was wearing a cap she had made herself, matted, greasy hair sticking out from under it. Her first words were not, “I missed you, Mommy!” or even “YAY, you’re here!”. They were simply, “Can I stay another week?!”
Needless to say, Kacey loved camp. I knew she would. She continued to love it 12 or 13 more times. I think by the second year she even showered and changed clothes once or twice.
When it was my time to go back, she brought it full circle for me. I had sent her with pink towels and pink sheets and rolled up scrunchies. She sent me with a red hoodie and a red hair dryer and a red water bottle, etc. And, of course, I bought myself a red suitcase to complete the matchy-matchy ensemble. After all, the only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.