Monday, June 9, 2008

Off to Camp

I recently started writing for my friend Jessica Wolf. She edits the Montclair-based magazine New Jersey Life and Leisure. Jessica is a fabulous writer and editor, and an awesome person. My story is on page 18 of the June issue. You can check the magazine out at


If you’ve sent your kids away for all or part of the summer, you know it is bitter sweet time, for them and for you. The bitter part is you have your work cut out for you, packing them up and sending them off without tears or regrets. Plus, every summer they go away means they’re one summer closer to leaving home for good.

The sweet part is they learn independence, they learn how to make their beds and keep track of their stuff (well, kind of), their dirty laundry is someone else’s problem and you don’t have to check your email twice a day to see if soccer practice is cancelled.

When we first sent Matt off to sleep away camp, he was almost ten. We packed him up with stuffed animals, family photos, a new comforter, and a promise to write every day. He went with his cousin Sam, and I worried that the two would either kill each other by day three, or else stick together like glue and not talk to anyone but each other.

They did bond and they did fight. They also made new friends, learned how to play “Ga Ga” (a game that takes place in a wall-enclosed pit and involves slamming balls at your opponents) and begged to go back the next summer.

Last summer, as Matt turned eleven, we sent him off with pictures of our new puppy. Every morning, I wrote Matt “doggy dialogue” – a letter from Roxy, barking about her day. Sometimes I attached pictures of Roxy playing with her four-legged friend Cocoa. (You may be gagging over this exchange, but Matt loved it.)

This summer, Matt is almost twelve, and big changes are afoot. He doesn’t have stuffed animals on his bed anymore, he complains that Roxy is a “pig” because she scarfs down the cheese sticks that get left behind in the car, and I’m putting a set of poker chips in his duffle bag.

I know his male counselors will educate him about girlfriend maintenance, and his arsenal of stupid jokes and inappropriate websites will grow. Our earnest, sweet boy may easily come home a sarcastic, smelly young man.

I treasure my long summer days, when very little parenting is required of me. And I treasure the day we pick Matt up from camp, when he is invariably taller, dirtier and happier than the day we dropped him off.

But before I get all weepy on you, let me tell you how we get ready for camp.

NAMETAPES AND PERMANENT MARKERS ARE YOUR FRIENDS. We label everything that goes into the trunk and onto Matt’s back and bed. Full disclosure: Our housekeeper irons on the name tapes. I use the permanent marker and write his name on everything that can be left behind in the bathroom. This includes deodorant, shampoo and toothbrushes. Stuff still gets lost but is more likely to be found if your darling’s name is emblazoned on it.

THE WORLD IS SMALL, LIFE IS SHORT, GOD IS WATCHING, KARMA IS A BOOMERANG AND WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND: If some other child’s stuff comes home with yours, be a lamb and send it back. (One summer, Matt came home with another child’s orange blanket and matching flannel sheets. I wanted to mail the stuff back, I really did, but the camp wouldn’t give me the child’s home address. The next summer, we discreetly left the sheets in a bag on the child’s bed, returning proper harmony to the universe.)

WHAT THEY NEED. If you have girls, you’re on your own. I have no idea what girls need, only that whatever it is, it will probably make you crazy. (Last summer, my close friend, the mother of three sleep-away-campers and the most thorough packer I know, thought she had everything covered until her 10-year old daughter wrote home asking for a padded bra and tighter tank tops.) For boys, my best advice is to buy socks and lots of ‘em. At Matt’s camp, laundry gets done every seven days, but sometimes it takes a few days for it to come back, so really they are on a ten day cycle, which translates into 15 pairs of socks, since, invariably, a few go missing.
Boxer shorts – Same theory applies. The more, the merrier.
Gym shorts – Thank you Sports Authority, for selling them cheap and plentiful. Matt has seven pairs of basketball shorts, and since the style is to wear them long, he can still fit into the pairs we bought three years ago.
T-shirts – You probably have a zillion. Send at least ten.
Sweatshirts, sweatpants, rain gear – I don’t think any of this gets used (children don’t seem to experience cold or wet) but you’d feel guilty if you didn’t send them.
Towels – Send a few because when they fall on the floor, no one picks them up and they get moldy.
Baseball caps – These they use. Send two.
Toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, deodorant – You can only hope they’ll use them.
Laundry bag – If it gets lost, they can use a pillowcase, but it’s good to start out with at least one.
Big, wide, slim, plastic, under-the-bed-box – I think Bed Bath & Beyond invented this brilliant idea, a brightly-colored box that slides under the kids’ beds. In it, your kids can store all their extra stuff – stationery, batteries, books, tissues, etc.
Chest of drawers – Matt’s camp provides the kids with a cubby and a hook to hang their towels on, but very little storage space, so he brings a stack of plastic drawers.
Fan, flashlight, radio, batteries, cheap camera, water bottle, playing cards, reading light, books, puzzles, Madlibs, money. The money part is always tricky. The first two summers, we got away with giving Matt $20 for a trip to an amusement park. This year he wants more. We are in negotiations.
Sheets, sleeping bag, blanket, pillow – I hope he changes his sheets at least once so we always send two sets.
Tennis racquets, mitts, hockey sticks, shin guards – If you send them, they will play.
Stationery (see snail mail, below)

NO PLACE FOR GADGETS: Your child’s camp might be more high-tech than ours, so maybe it allows all that fun electronic stuff like Game boys, ipods, MP3 players, laptops, and cell phones. Matt’s camp doesn’t. The good news is we don’t worry about chargers, loss, theft, or breakage. The bad news is we don’t hear from him electronically. That means we don’t get email or text messages from him. His camp doesn’t allow calls home either, so we are reliant on that very old fashioned form of communication: snail mail. If your kids’ camps allow any or all of the above, God bless.

SNAIL MAIL: They can text you all they want, but kids still want real letters to read during rest hour and so do you. My parents sent me off to sleep away camp when I was nine, and my mother tried to dull the pain by writing me every day. Even though I have spent my life trying to live in opposition to my mother, I too sent my oldest child off to camp at nine, so I also write him every day. We send Matt with a box of stationery and hope he writes back. I address and stamp the envelopes ahead of time. I know, I know: If I had raised my boy right, I would be able to send him off to camp with stationery and stamps and be done with it. Shame on me.

CAMP WEBSITES: ARE THEY HAVING FUN YET? The hundreds of pictures the camps post on their websites are a gift. Accept them. My husband has more patience than I do so he trolls the camp website, looking for pictures of Matthew looking happy. He then attaches the pictures to an email and sends them to me and the various grandparents. Matt generally looks happy but I don’t take this as a barometer of his true mood. What camp would post pictures of kids looking sad or angry? Still, it’s fun to see who else’s clothes he is wearing.

CARE PACKAGES. Do your kids really need food-and-fun-in-a-box while they’re at camp? Probably not, but once every summer, I send Matt and Sam a package of garbage to share –tiny checkerboards, stationery, joke books, whistles, gum. My sister-in-law does the same thing. Most of the stuff comes home unopened and/or unused, but it makes us feel like good Moms to make a special trip to the post office on our kids’ behalves.

SEARCH AND REPLACE. Be prepared. You may actually forget to pack them something they desperately need. Last year, Matthew’s portable fan broke the first week. He wrote home that he needed a fan that clipped to his bed, and a portable hand-fan that sprayed water. After four separate trips to Walgreen’s, CVS, the local pharmacy, and Bed Bath & Beyond, I was able to fill his order.

GET AHEAD OF LICE: You might want to check your honey’s head before you let him back in the house. Last summer, we drove up to Matt’s camp, and before we were allowed to unpack, there were sentries standing outside the bunks, waiting to check the campers’ heads. It was a great idea. Unfortunately, no one checks their heads on the way out. You should.

PUT IT IN THE CAMP CLOSET: Last year, when Matt came home, I got smart, and put everything camp-related in one place: the closet under the basement staircase. I got this idea from a friend who keeps all of her family’s’ ski socks and long underwear in one drawer. Now when Matt comes home, we wash his laundry bag and sleeping bag, roll them up, then stick them and his under-the-bed-box (with all its stuff, safe inside) in the basement closet and forget about it for eleven months.

Like any experience that is new and challenging, camp transforms the child. It also transforms you. You will have down time. You will have one (or more) less mouth to feed. You will have fewer places to drive, smaller meals to make. But the real beauty of sending your kids to sleep away camp is that it gives you time to miss them.

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