The 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.