He didn’t even have his cellphone for comfort. Electronics, of course, are not allowed at summer camp, so when we dropped our 13-year-old son off yesterday at the bus that would take him into the wilds of New Hampshire, he stood around awkwardly, not knowing what to do with his hands. In a cruel twist of fate, the friend he was supposed to go with broke his leg a few weeks ago jumping off a trampoline, and is out of commission all summer–except, his mother joked, for jewelry-making and weaving classes. My stomach knotted as I watched my boy crane his neck to see who else he might know, then march alone up the steps of the bus.
Thirteen is a little old to be going to sleepaway camp for the first time. He’s been to day camps and on a two-week backpacking trip, but not to traditional camp, like his sisters, and I am less confident than I was with the girls that he will love it. I was a camp kid, reveling in everything from the bug juice and campfires to the tennis lessons and talent shows. I was never so happy as I was those summers, conducting “heart to hearts” out in a rowboat, hiking up the mountain, or engaging in the camp-wide Olympics-style competition known back then as Color War. My daughters, 16 and almost 9, have inherited my love of summer camp, and in fact attend the very same YMCA girls’ camp I did–which, thankfully, remains unchanged since I learned to play tether ball there 35 years ago.
But my middle child and only son is pricklier, antsier and more defiant than his sisters. (No wonder the idea of sending him away sounded so appealing.) He fancies himself something of an outdoorsman, and I fear he will find traditional sleepaway camp too formulaic and cushy; he’s the kid who has, on more than one occasion, asked me to blindfold him, drive him into the countryside, let him out of the car and then time how long it takes him to find his way home–a request I have so far denied, though I have little doubt he’d make it by dinner.
Still, I believe there is value in pushing your children–and yourself–beyond the comfort zone, which is why I didn’t let him back out of camp even after his buddy had to. To his credit, he only protested for a day or two, and not with any real conviction. He helped, or at least watched, me pack the trunk, and voiced a few opinions on footwear and towels. I am sure his stomach was as knotted as mine when he turned to us outside the bus door and said cheerfully, “Bye, Mom, Bye, Dad,” allowed a very brief hug, and climbed the steps.
I flashed back to when we moved from New Jersey to the Boston area six years ago, and I had to drop him and his big sister off for school that first day in an unfamiliar building full of total strangers. We all smiled bravely, but I felt like I was pushing them off a cliff. And I flashed forward to when we will, if all goes well, deposit him on some leafy college campus, probably with the same trunk we’d just loaded onto the camp bus. Parenting, I realized, is actually an endless series of goodbyes with a lot of laundry in between, from the first preschool drop-off to the wedding march down the aisle. The sick feeling in your stomach may never disappear, but you can’t let that get in the way.
My only option now is to wait for a letter, and I know full well that could be a long wait. At least when he goes to college, he’ll be allowed to bring his cellphone.