Digging Summer

Digging Summer

diggingsummerThe most summery of projects ever to begin in our backyard spilled into fall. Here’s what happened: my two middle kids and their friend Kate—I think this was a going into second grader and two going into sixth graders—began to dig a hole. I do not remember why the hole needed to be dug or why the hole wanted to be dug. As they progressed—into the fall—with the dig, I’m not sure the original purpose retained relevance.

What I know is they dug. They dug for hours, and days, and weeks. The hole got pretty big. They could step into the hole, jump into it even.

In fact, sometime during the dig Kate had her annual check-up with her family doctor, who asked what she liked to do after school. “We’re digging a hole,” was Kate’s answer. The doctor, apparently, nodded her head, which was tilted as she did so. “It’s really cool. We are getting stronger digging the hole and we’re thinking about how to dig the hole. It’s really good for us.”

For the barn structure that happened to be perilously encroached upon by the hole, it was a different story. Eventually, digging ceased and the kids began to fill the hole back in at our insistence.

The hole digging project brought the classic Ruth Krauss written, Maurice Sendack illustrated book “A Hole is to Dig” to the forefront of my rotation with the toddler.

If a hole is to dig, then summer is prime time to dig holes. It’s when you can occupy yourself with things you cannot dream up during the school year crowds your days. On the “otherwise occupy yourself front” the former going into second grader now headed toward sixth grade has begun to teach himself card tricks via You Tube. He needed to go to sleep at a sleepover and learned self-hypnosis.

This kind of boredom has relegated my own work life to air quotes, because it’s a pretty direct relationship: kids out of school or camp means a work-from-home mama, unless she had fulltime babysitting, which I do not have at present, isn’t exactly a productive worker. That’s a luxury. I felt grateful for the opportunity to experience a little of my own boredom.

The officially unoccupied period is followed by a three-week arts camp and then he goes to his two-week overnight camp on a little farm in Pennsylvania where one year an entire afternoon was spent in focused attempt to break a resistant-to-breakage stick. There is no You Tube there. He’ll see old friends of the human variety there and the two Alpacas and other farm animals, including a (new) calf, and the farm’s dog and a cat or two.

On the “more than that” front, there can be the wonderful, varied treasure box that is camp. This week, while one starts his groovy three-week arts camp for 11-16 year-olds, the little girl is at its polar opposite: a camp with required t-shirts and backpacks. Beyond polar opposite to her orderly experience is the camp where my 16 year-old is working all summer. That camp works like this: put kids in a van, and go off on adventures that help you get to know the land where you live. There’s hiking and river walking and just experiencing what’s in the Valley (including ice cream)—and in the course of that you might learn about bugs or birds or native plants or rail trails or power plants.

The theme that ties the very different camp experiences, including the difference between camper and counselor, is this: summer is for stretching—and when you think about it, to handle boredom makes you stretch (and perhaps, dig or truly be amused with yourself as you learn card tricks). To handle whatever camp offers (Spanish lessons or carrying three kids’ backpacks on a hike, take your pick) makes you stretch. By gosh, one kid needs new sneakers because his feet have grown and the small girl stretched out such that she’s suddenly shed some vestige of the smaller girl she was before. You can see, when you look at her, where she’s headed. Summer is for that, too. You have time to grow, even literally.

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When You Drop Me Off, Are You Going to Leave?

When You Drop Me Off, Are You Going to Leave?


dempsey“How many more days until my soccer camp?” Brennan asks, every day. I cringe inwardly but pretend enthusiasm.

Months ago, he heard about this camp and begged me to enroll him. The opportunity for him to run and play at a park all week with other four-year-olds sounded great idea. I signed him up.

Then I ran into my neighbor, Craig, whose son Drew would attend for the second year.

“You know about this camp, right?” Craig laughed. “It’s kind of…sketchy.”


“Well, it’s run by this crazy bunch of kids from England,” Craig said. He described them as “clueless.” He repeated the work “sketchy.” But, he said, Drew loves it.




Brennan sits on the living room floor, struggling zip up his backpack. “You are going to bring me there and then leave, right?” he asks, beaming.

He appears long after bedtime, too excited to sleep. I tuck him in again. He rolls onto his side, hugs his stuffed gray kitty and smiles at the wall, imagining…what?

I am kept awake, too, imagining less happy things. What was I thinking? An unfamiliar camp at a huge city park, with a bunch of strangers? He’s barely four.

I look over the camp information and realize I forgot to pick up a copy of Brennan’s immunization record. A sign that I shouldn’t be sending him — or some kind of subconscious sabotage.

I’ll have to convince the coaches to let me drop him off and return with the form at pickup. But I fantasize they’ll send him home with a little clap on the shoulder, saying, “Maybe next year, mate. When you’re five.”


The park sits on a buried landfill framed by a towering housing development and four-lane highway. Waves of kids shriek and run across the turf on their little shin-guard clad legs, pulling at each other and tripping over soccer balls.

Brennan tugs me toward the field, eyes huge with excitement. “Now you leave. And I stay by myself.”

“You stay with your coaches,” I say. But he is already running ahead of me.

I spot a guy of nineteen or twenty swinging a clipboard. “I’m called Paul. Who’ve we here, then? Master Brennan. You’re a big man of four then, eh?” Beside Brennan’s name on the attendance list is a highlighted, glaringly unchecked “medical form” box. I prepare to plead my case, but Paul cheerfully strikes a bold line through the box.

Brennan is wearing an Italian soccer jersey and Paul grabs him by the shoulders. “All suited up, are you? Ready to play some football then?” He spins him around to read the back of his shirt. “Buffon!” he yells as Brennan cracks up. “You’ll be taking care of us then, eh, Buffon?”

Brennan’s coach, a wiry kid with glasses and black curls, is leading a group of preschoolers in a game where he appears to play some kind of British pirate-monster, threatening and growling at kids as they scream, claw and jump at him. Before I can say goodbye Brennan takes off and is absorbed by the pack. They move away, yelling and pummeling the coach with their tiny fists.

Dragging myself toward the parking lot, I spot Ruth, whose daughter Sivan is Brennan’s age. Enviably unflappable, Ruth is the opposite of me. But she says, “I don’t know about this place. Look at that little guy wandering off over there and no one’s even noticing.”

We watch the boy hop around the edge of the field. Then someone waves to me from among the trees — Craig, spying on Drew.

I walk over to him and he shrugs and laughs in an I-told-you-so kind of way. We watch for a few minutes before he says, “Okay, I’m going to stop being an overprotective parent and go now.”

“Me too,” I lie. “See you later.”

Brennan’s group moves across the field. Something in the grass catches his attention and he stops and kicks at it, then squats down to examine it more closely. His group keeps going. He sits down and, within a few seconds, he is enveloped by a different group of kids just as his group blends into a mass of older kids. But then a pony-tailed teenaged girl runs back for him. I see her reach out her hand and they run across the field together.

I leave.

At pickup, kids run all over, tackling each other, taking off to find the bathroom or climb a tree. I spot Brennan: red-faced, exhausted, happy.

“Bye, Buffon,” the curly-headed coach calls. I make a mental note to put him in the yellow Italian jersey all week.

On the drive home, Brennan smiles out the window when I ask about his day. All he says is that he needs to wear a green t-shirt tomorrow, because he is going to play for the green team.


“Right when you drop me off, are you going to leave?” Brennan asks

“Yep!” I say. And really, I plan to. But dark clouds are rolling in and the park has no shelter. I sit in my car in a nearby parking lot until a crack of thunder sounds. Rain falls in a thick curtain. I call Ruth to tell her I’ll take Sivan.

The rain soaks through my clothes as I run to the field. Kids huddle under trees as the coaches try to organize them and call parents from cell phones. One boy sobs as a coach asks, “What’s your name, mate? What’s your name?”

“I’m taking Sivan,” I shout to the ponytailed coach.

“Who?” the girl asks.

I point. She half nods, half shrugs and moves toward some older kids who are wrestling in a puddle.

Brennan, Sivan and I grab hands and run. They are drenched and laughing as I buckle them into their seats.

“Did you leave today?” Brennan asks as we sit in traffic in the downpour. “Was I there by myself?”

“Yep,” I say. “Hey, guys, what’s the name of your soccer coach?”

“Who?” Brennan asked.

“Do you know, Sivan?” I ask.

She looks at Brennan, widens her eyes and shrugs. And then they both laugh as though I’ve said something hilarious.


I will stay for just ten minutes. I peer through the bushes. The ridiculousness of the situation falls on me in its full weight. I am hiding from a four-year-old.

I spy Brennan’s group moving toward a cluster of trees with their bags. Sivan’s eyes immediately find me and she raises an arm to wave. I duck but then give in and wave back, embarrassed. But Brennan is oblivious. He is bringing up the tail of the group, dragging his red backpack through the dirt behind him as he shlumps along heavily in the heat. He plunks down next to Sivan and says something to her, and they laugh together.

I leave.


Brennan’s temperature is 102.3.

“Can I still go?” he asks, and cries when I shake my head.

I feel sick myself, with guilt, like I have somehow willed this.

In the afternoon, our babysitter Tasha comes by. She picked up her sister from the camp and mentioned to the coaches that she would be seeing Brennan.

She holds out a huge bag of stuff: Soccer balls, t-shirts, water bottles. “Those guys were so nice! I told them Brennan was sick and they were like, Oh, poor little guy, and they just kept bringing me stuff.” Tasha seems unaware that their attention might have actually been captured by the fact that she is a tanned, twenty-two year old knockout in a tank top and shorts.

A year later

Brennan still talks about soccer camp all the time. Even though he was only there a few mornings, the experience made an impression. This summer, he’ll go to a real, reputable day camp where he’ll swim and hike and play soccer, too.

Maybe I’ll hire Tasha to drop him off. She’ll make more of an impression on the counselors — and both they and Brennan are sure to admire her when she walks away.

Photo by Megan Dempsey

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Five Reasons Sending Your Child to Overnight Camp Will Be Good For You

Five Reasons Sending Your Child to Overnight Camp Will Be Good For You

IMG_2021Not that you asked, but here’s my advice: if there’s a question about whether to send your child to overnight camp, I say, “Yes. Have your child go to overnight camp.” And for a minute, I’m not saying this for your child (I don’t know your child). I’m saying this for YOU.

Here’s why: beyond all those good coping skills and peer experiences your kid will have at camp (and let’s face it, probably your child will have a blast), you get a lot out of the deal. You are dubious. Hang with me, here.

You get to miss your child. Sure, this is tender and a little sad, even melancholy, but it’s also the sweet kind of tender. You remember what you like about that kid of yours in little unexpected bursts. You almost buy the favorite flavor of yogurt—and then, for a week or two, you don’t. There’s something about pining for someone that parents in the 24/7 grind of life don’t experience with their children. It’s really, really nice to be reminded just how much you adore your child, through the absence that does make the heart grow fonder.

You get, I hope, mail. Depending upon your child, age, fluency with writing, this can be informative or not informative, but no matter what, it’s fun to get a letter and to see what your child does or does not reveal via post. I am not sure all camps require letters. Ours does, one a week. And there aren’t electronic communications, like postings of photos or emails or texts between parents and children or really even camp and parents. There aren’t phone calls. Thus, the mail—so old school—becomes authentically significant again. There’s really nothing like an envelope through the chute when that is all the communication you’re going to enjoy for a period of time.

You will, I hope, send mail. You know what? If you let it be fun, it’s fun to send postcards and letters with a little comic from the paper and or a Mad Lib or crossword enclosed or what have you off to camp. Most camps don’t allow food (mice, jealousy, food allergies, sugar highs). This means you have to be inventive and send a tiny flashlight or a deck of cards or yoyo strings if you want to add to your missives. I find it interesting, at least this is the case for me, to realize how little I have to say; you might realize how little you have to say—or you might be surprised by just how much you have to say (and then, please let me know so I can follow your lead and write juicier letters, quality over quantity for a change). It’s delightful to wonder aloud on paper about what’s happening where your child is. It’s kind of nice to communicate in such a different way. Personally, I’m reminded that I enjoy drawing hearts.

To that last notion of wondering aloud what’s happening where your child is—I think it’s really nice not to know everything when on some level, in day-to-day life with familiar haunts and kids and even teachers or destinations, there’s just so much you don’t know about the rhythm and feel of your camper’s day. This is why I favor the no photos posted by camp decision. I like so much that camp is for the campers not for parent voyeurs. And I say this as one who will pick up at camp, and take photos and post them and email them to the grandparents. Put another way, what happens in camp stays in camp. This is good for your child. I think, in our helicopter-leaning era, it’s even better for us. The tethers we keep so tight do have to get longer and looser in order for our children to grow up and out. And we have to loosen our grips in order for this to happen. To hear your child tell you of some adventures and misadventures later on is to realize your child’s resourcefulness and to realize that your gift to them as a parent has just as much to do with letting go, as with holding tight.

You may not miss your child—at least not the entire time. It might be nice to have a break. And that’s awesome, too.

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By Lorri Barrier

0-10It is day five of my oldest son Ian’s first week away at camp. It is a totally unplugged camp, which is good for him. Like most twelve year olds, the virtual worlds of Minecraft, Pokemon and Zelda are his reality. This also means he is unplugged from me. He’s been to sleepovers and stayed weekends with grandparents, but this is different. I can’t call at night. I can’t check and see if he remembered to change underwear or clothes. If he’s eating enough. If people are being nice to him. If he’s having fun.

I saw Ian last on Sunday morning, when another mother and two kids going to the same camp picked him up. I stood at the car window and called him “sweet pea” out of habit. I realize now I shouldn’t have done that, but it just slipped out. He had sort of a half smirk on his face. He said a little sarcastically, “Bye, Mom!” His blue eyes were shining. He is sweet boy; he always has been.

When I was younger, I said I never wanted children. As an only child, it was probably closer to the truth that I couldn’t imagine children. My experience was limited to a few babysitting gigs at age thirteen, and wrangling a few slightly younger cousins at holiday gatherings. Children seemed like scattered, unpredictable creatures. Even when my husband and I married, I asked him over and over—”You are sure you are okay not having kids?” He says now that he knew I’d change my mind, but I don’t know how he could have known. He never did anything to pressure me, but I did change my mind.

At work, I obsessively check the weather in Burgaw, NC. That’s where Ian is. It’s been mostly cloudy all week, so he hasn’t been too hot. He burns easily. I wrote that on the camp sheet under “Special Concerns.” He sunburns very easily. That’s another thing I would say, if I could call. “Are you wearing sunscreen? On your face? What about your hat? That protects your scalp from getting burned.” If I could call, I imagine Ian holding the phone as I say these things, rolling his eyes. “Yes” he’d say. “Yes, Mom. I am fine. I am wearing sunscreen everywhere.” It would appease me. But I’d have no real idea if he’s doing it or not. But at least I would have heard his voice.

Ian was delivered by C-section. I wasn’t prepared for that. I had childbirth and baby care books everywhere during my pregnancy. I sometimes told people I’d read them, but really, I hadn’t. I’d read a few chapters of each, and then become bored. I like books with a plot and characters. Give me some dialogue. It was hard to visualize what I might do with this baby that was still mostly imaginary. I decided I’d figure it out when the baby got here. That’s the way I’ve done most things in my life—learn as I go.

It’s Thursday, and raining again. It’s rained so much this summer that people joke about monsoon season.  Usually at this time of year, the grass is brown and crunchy in North Carolina.  Usually in July, I carry water to my tender dogwoods and lilacs at the edge of the woods. Not this year. I watch the rain from work. I’m distracted, I can’t focus. I check the weather at camp. There’s a flood warning in Burgaw. Flooding in some areas is imminent it says. The Cape Fear River is rising as I type this. I have no idea how far the camp is from the river. I know in 1999, there was a major flood at the camp. Water stood at two feet inside the buildings. I saw the pictures on the website. That was almost 15 years ago, my husband would say if I mentioned it. I imagine Ian standing on top of his bunk, the floor covered with water. Would they call if the river flooded the camp?  What would be the point, my husband would say. I’m sure they will take care of them and are prepared if that happens.

When they finally pulled him out of me, I cried. C-sections hurt—don’t let anyone tell you differently. I thought of the line from Macbeth, “From his mother’s womb untimely ripped.” The doctor said, “The umbilical cord is all wrapped around his foot!” Then they held him up above the sheet dividing my head from my dissected lower body, and I watched the doctor unwind the cord, bleary-eyed, exhausted. A blue coil, just like a telephone cord. The kind of phone Ian has never used. That’s the kind of phone I imagine him answering, if I could call. I imagine him answering it in the kitchen, the phone hanging on the wall. In the background, through the door frame, I can see the other kids playing board games and ping pong.

“Yeah, it’s raining today,” Ian would say.

“Is anything flooding? Are you okay?” I’d ask, trying to hide the panic in my voice.

“No, Mom. We are fine. I have the rain boots you packed if we go out later.”

I wish I could give a name to this feeling at my core that feels like tangled homesickness, embarrassment, and love. It feels a little like quickening; a primal flutter—what I felt when I didn’t know him, didn’t know what to expect, but I knew where he was. At least I knew he was safe.

When they handed Ian to me, he seemed so small. He didn’t weigh as much as our cat. But I did learn to breastfeed, and he learned to nurse. I learned to change his diapers and bathe him, little though he was. I learned how to pack a solid diaper bag, fasten a car seat, and wear him in a sling.  I learned to wake quickly from a deep sleep, walk the floor with him at night, swaying—the dark world reduced to two, mother and son.

This is a different kind of learning. It’s not hands on; it’s hands off.

I imagine Ian will be glad to play his video games again, and he might even be happy to see his younger siblings. He may ask me what I did while he was gone. I worried constantly, but I won’t say it. “Oh, nothing,” I’ll say.  “I went to work, came home, went to exercise class, played with your brother and sister, you know, the usual. I missed you.”   I see the image of the doctor unwinding the twisted cord from his tiny foot again.  The first time I ever saw my son.  And I practiced deeply, repetitively, falteringly, grudgingly, the painful art of letting go.

Lorri Barrier lives in North Carolina with her husband and three children.  She teaches at Stanly Community College in Albemarle, NC.  Her work has appeared in Mothering Magazine, Wild Goose Poetry Review, and Brain, Child.  Women’s issues are of particular interest to her.  Her blog is available at lorriann16.blogspot.com.

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Parachute Packing

Parachute Packing

By Francie Arenson Dickman

IMG_5013“I’m really nervous about going to camp,” my daughter says as we take out her duffles, preparing to load them with gear for her third season away from home. Unlike my other daughter, who will toss a few t-shirts in her bag as she heads out the door to the bus, Lilly likes to start weeks ahead of departure, allowing herself time to inspect battery supply on flashlights, the expiration date on the sunscreen. It’s a lengthy process, but she is the girl you want to bunk with should life in the Northwoods go south. She has bug spray in case of mosquitos, Benadryl in case the bug spray doesn’t work, bandages in case she scratches the bites, lice deterrent in case of a summer scourge, aloe in case of a burn, Tums in case concern about lice, bites and burns gives her a stomach ache and duct tape because you just never know.

Fair enough, I think to myself, standing next to her in my office where the organizing is taking place. Two months is a long time for even the most well-adjusted eleven-year-old to ship out, so an expression of fear at this point is expected from someone like Lilly. She has anxiety, the kind triggered by fear and a deep-seeded faith in worst case scenarios. This strain, according to my father, is genetic, striking predominantly Jews of Eastern European dissent like Woody Allen and him. Even in the 80s, my father avoided credit cards and the stock market in case of another Depression. As a child, he also avoided school for a time. No one knows why.

He passed the condition down to me. In fact, a few days before Lilly announced she was nervous about camp, I told my husband I was concerned that Lilly hadn’t yet started to worry about leaving for camp. (My husband is only half of Jewish Eastern European dissent, so he worries half as much as I do.) He told me I was crazy; Lilly was probably over it. I scoffed and said, “Just you wait.”

Now, in triumph, I push aside the camping paraphernalia, sit down next to her and prepare a response that exudes supportive nonindulgence, as Gail, my daughter’s therapist has advised. For the anxiety-prone parent, nonindulgence can be a challenge. Lilly says headache, I hear brain tumor. She shows me her reorganized closet, I see OCD. “What specifically or nonspecifically is getting to you?” I ask.

“Well,” she says, as she methodically moves fans and flashlights from one pile on the floor to another after fitting them with fresh juice. “I’m worried about going away, I’m worried a little about the kids in my cabin, but mostly I’m worried because I’m not that worried.”

I laugh, and thinking I am laughing at her rather than with her, she explains further, though I know where she is headed. I, too, as a child used anxiety in appropriate contexts as a tactical offensive measure, preparing my mind like Lilly prepares her duffles, aware of and ready for all the shoes that could possibly drop. I was born a parachute packer. Unfortunately, so was my daughter.

“Worry is the interest you pay on things that never materialize,” my grandmother used to tell me.

But in my mind, worry seemed a cheap price to pay to prevent disaster. Hell, if all I had to do was stew for a few weeks before our annual trek to Florida in order to keep my grandparents from dying while we were staying with them, then bring on the fretting. If my daughter’s upfront anxieties that the summer will be plagued with tornados and mosquitoes will keep such calamities at bay, than worry she will. And if, as she now explains, she’s forgotten to worry about camp because she’s been, god forbid, living in the moment, or worrying about something more imminent like the end of elementary school, then the fault of a lousy summer lies firmly on her small, Eastern European shoulders. I get it. But I don’t tell her so.

I don’t want her to know I buy in because parachute packing is not an easy business. The burden of holding fate in your hands is, aside from entirely egotistical, lonely and exhausting. Which is why I quit. I am too old, I no longer have the energy. If I keep it up, as my husband warns, I may no longer have my health. So, as much as I want to indulge Lilly and validate her coping methods, I’d rather try to save her from herself, and so I hold my tongue.

When I was a child, my mother barely registered my day-to-day comings and goings, let alone my anxious feelings. “Mrs. Miller has breast cancer and Alison says she’s going to die. Are you going to get breast cancer too?”

“Why would I get breast cancer?” my mother would say as she sat and smoked at the kitchen table. “Go play with your brother.” As if he would help my situation. If he was even home, chances were that he was tucked in a ball on his bed tapping his mezuzah against his chest, his own psychotic ritual for calamity prevention, which my mother never noticed because her reach was restricted by the telephone cord to the kitchen.

Nowadays, I’ve noticed parents respond to every twinge of their children’s anxieties with the panic once reserved for typhoid fever. Three-fourths of my kids’ friends not only have been diagnosed with some type of anxiety but have a shrink on staff, a doctor dedicated solely to calming them down. Naturally, my daughter is included in this anxious majority.

The first anxiety doctor that I took my daughter to see when she like my father before her, refused to go to school for reasons never fully understood, was Betsy Blumstein, billed by many as the Dali Lama of the North Shore. Just getting an appointment with her is enough to give even the most laid-back parent palpitations and her method of treatment is no better. She sits the anxious child down in a windowless room next to a poodle the size of the Incredible Hulk and in a tone that could be called anything but supportive, chides the child for allowing the anxiety monster to sit on her shoulder. When we left her office, my daughter said that listening to her was worse than listening to me, which she gets to do for free, and so, we never returned.

We instead found Gail, an old school psychologist who reminds me of my grandmother and who found a way to get Lilly to go back to school, a way for me to talk to Lilly without projecting my own anxieties onto her situation, and for better a worse, a way for her to leave home, first for a month. And now, Lilly says, she’s ready for two.

I, of course, am not. I have been worried since January about how she would fare away from home for so long. I’ve spent many a wee hour making mental lists of the items she might need in case of emergency. Allergy medicine in case the hay fever season runs long. Earplugs in case someone snores. Airborne in case she feels a cold coming on. A string around her wrist to remind her to wear her retainer. Fresh Calamine in case the string gives her a rash. The truth is, I realize as I write her name on her back-up pair of flip-flops, she might not have worried enough to prevent a bad summer, but I have. I’ve packed the parachute for her.

Francie Arenson Dickman’s essays have appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.

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Would You Pay Your Child To Write You Letters From Camp?

Would You Pay Your Child To Write You Letters From Camp?

IMG_0040The only way I will get my 13-year-old-son to write me letters from camp this summer is if I pay him. That’s right, money in exchange for letters.

This summer will be my son’s 6th year at his seven-week all boys sleep away camp. To date, I’ve received, on average, two letters per summer, each on one side of a piece of paper with a total of about ten lines (that’s being generous) or less (that’s more accurate—and includes the salutations). One of his letters each summer is simply a list of requested items for parent visiting day three weeks into camp, which sets my maternal instincts into overdrive, and includes a week-long scavenger hunt type of shop for his desired goodies, snacks and some surprises for my boy.

For years, I have watched our mailman, Cliff (that’s his actual name – best name for a mailman ever – thank you “Cheers”) from my office window as he slows down his mail truck in front of our house. The sound of his truck starting back up and slowly pulling away is the signal for my daily walk down our long driveway, hoping that instead of more Victoria Secret catalogues, Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons and bills there will be a small letter-sized white envelope with my son’s name and camp address on the familiar red return label adorned with mini baseballs. And his distinctive messy handwriting, the one I wish was a bit neater during the school year but long for on the hottest of summer days. Because all I want is a piece of him, a sliver of his gregarious personality, the way he looks at me when I tuck him in at night, his freckled face after a day in the sun, his braces-filled smile. But every day it’s the same. No letter.

Whether my son writes me or not, I still make sure to write him every day, either a quick email, a sports clipping from the newspaper, or an actual letter, some days creative, others a summary on what’s happening at home, including our Labrador Tobey’s inevitable daily destructions.

For years, I have stood by the “no news is good news” argument for his lack of letters as well as the “isn’t that a good sign” sentiment. But then, last summer, a good friend boasted about how many letters she had received and how she couldn’t decide which to read first. “Wow,” I said, lingering on the image of my daily letter-empty mailbox. “You’re so lucky to get so many letters.”

“Do you know how much today’s mail cost me?” she said.

“You think he would write me if I didn’t pay him to?” she continued in a matter-of-fact tone, adding, “Yup, he gets $5 per letter. But they have to be good. No two-liners for that fee.” My confusion quickly morphed into a combination of minor shock and horror, with a tinge of envy mixed in. Why hadn’t I thought of that idea? But I wasn’t the type of mother to bribe my kid to write letters. Or was I? How far would I be willing to go for my own parental benefit and maternal fulfillment?

Last month, I was at a friend’s house while she was organizing her daughter’s camp pack. “It’s her first summer,” she said, showing me the selection of flashlights for her electricity-free cabins. I was impressed by her organization. Then she presented her daughter’s plastic stationery box, filled with decorative pens, personalized stamps, stickers and enough stationery for what seemed like the entire camp. As she rearranged the owl-themed pad and brightly colored envelopes, I joked, “you think she has enough stationery to last her through the summer?” She and her daughter gave each other a knowing look, as if I had stumbled upon a secret or an inside joke. “I’m paying her for each letter she writes. Right, Olivia?” “Yeah!” Olivia replied, as her brown saucer-shaped eyes widened. Another friend in the room, who also sends her daughter to camp added, without hesitation, “everyone does that. How else do you think we can get them to write?”

Years ago, when I went to camp, we had to write our parents. The counselors collected our letters daily. And in the afternoons, they placed mail from home on our beds. My mother wrote about her daily routine, her teacher-like script handwriting filling the front and back of her personalized stationery. My father was more the creative type. His letters were riddled with puns and mazes and games. In one, he cut tiny strips of paper and stapled them together, writing one or two words on each piece, creating a long measuring tape with a string of words and sentences. In every letter he ever sent me, he hid the letters “SP” (short for “special princess”) somewhere on the envelope or in the content of the letter, his own personal spin-off on one of my favorite pastimes growing up – counting Alan Hirschfield’s NINAs in the weekend edition of the New York Times.

Maybe I wrote my parents letters because I had to; maybe I wrote them because I wanted to. Maybe I wrote them because I loved receiving mail.

Perhaps the only way I can get my son to write me letters from camp is if I pay him. And these days, a bribe or reward is not out the realm of my parenting repertoire. Yet, there’s something so pure and fundamental about writing a letter. It’s not a text or an email; it’s not an Instagram photo or a Facebook message. It’s pen to paper. It’s writing down thoughts and recreating events.

I send Daniel to sleep away camp, knowing there will be moments filled with questions, discomfort, and uncertainty. And yet, for every one of those experiences, there are so many more “best ever” moments – like the group trip to Cooperstown, NBA day, the rope burn. I just want my son to tell me about it – all of it. But I recognize he can’t. That he chooses not to. That it’s all part of his summer experience away from home. Away from me.

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