Every summer, my kids come home from Sleepaway Camp with horror stories of hiking two miles uphill in a driving rain, or canoeing in rapids and flipping over into 50 degree water. They tell of struggling to put up a tent, only to find it leaks anyway, of inedible camp food, of having 89 mosquito bites. But they recount these tales not as complaints, but as triumphs.They are exalted at having come through it all. They are proud of themselves.
They have faced these challenges and conquered them. No Mom or Dad in sight. They love camp.
In just a few weeks, for the sixth time, I’ll pick my teenaged twins up after their seven weeks away. After years of going through this, I know the drill: once their initial happiness at having a real bed, a private bathroom, electronics, and decent food wears off – which is to say, after about three hours – the kids will be unhappy. They’ll miss their friends. They’ll miss the camaraderie. They’ll start counting the days until next summer.
Only this year there won’t be a next summer. My kids have aged out of camp. As upsetting as it is for them, I’m finding it pretty upsetting for me, too. And isn’t just that my husband and I won’t have seven weeks to reconnect without the kids next summer. It’s that the end of camp feels like the end of an era.
There will be no more excited anticipation over what bunk they’ll be in. No more thrill over Color War breaking out.
This summer will also likely be the last time any of us will regularly write or receive hand-written letters. For the past six years, I’ve looked forward to checking the mail every summer, because the mailbox might well contain something other than a bill, or a solicitation, or a catalog of clothing I will never buy. Summer means there might be a letter from one of my kids. I’ve saved all of their letters. There’s the one from my 11-year-old daughter writing me that she was homesick, but saying “don’t worry, it’s probably just puberty.” One from my son, then 12, written on a post-it, complaining we hadn’t sent enough handwritten letters, and could I please bake something for visiting day. (I never bake. Never. But I did that summer.) Mostly, it’s six years’ worth of missives simply detailing their days – well, mostly her days, after all, not much fits on a post-it – just because they wanted to share their happiness with me and my husband.
I will get emails and texts from them in years to come, but they aren’t the same as letters. There’s no evolution of handwriting, no hurried cross outs to desperately try to decipher, no drops or drips of varying colors, giving clues as to what snack they’d had, or whether they’d been to ceramics that day.
I will miss getting real mail.
My kids’ camp friends hold a special place in their lives. “They’re more like family,” my son once explained to me. I have camp friends too: the parents of the children my own have spent every summer with. After we drop the kids at the bus to camp, we all spend the day together, hanging out and enjoying knowing our kids are together and happy. We plan our visiting weekends together, staying in the same hotel, going out to dinner as a group. At the Winter Camp reunion each year, we all have dinner while the kids hang out, enjoying our own reunion almost as much as the kids do. Will we stay in touch? I hope so. But without the anchor of being camp families to hold us together, who knows if we’ll drift apart.
I will miss my camp friends.
I refer to the time my children are away at camp as my child-free summers.The rest of my year is child-full – but every summer, I get to enjoy being child-free, in large part because I know it’s temporary: they’re coming home, after all. After this summer at camp, the next time my children leave me for any length time, they’ll really be leaving me. College looms.
Like a parent, camp knows when it’s time to cut the cord, to let their children go. At fifteen, it’s time, most camps say. Only at camp, new kids arrive to fill their places, the cycle continues. For me, these two kids, these two infuriating, fabulous, funny, fully-formed people, they’re the only kids I’ve got. Once they’ve left for college, they’re gone.
Oh, I know, kids are home a lot when they’re away at school. I know many kids return home to live with their parents even after they’ve graduated. But this home, our home, will not be their home anymore. They’ll be visiting. Or staying here until they’re ready to find their own place.
Of course it’s what you hope for: that your children will grow up and lead their own lives. It’s kind of the point of parenting. But preparing your kids for leaving you isn’t the same as preparing yourself.
I will miss them when they’re gone.
I will miss perusing the camp photos of Jello wrestling, and rope burn, and talent shows, looking for my kids smiling in those pictures in the completely unselfconscious way I remember from their younger years, but seldom see now that they’re teenagers. I will even miss the stinky bags they come home with, filled with once white t-shirts, mismatched socks, half-done craft projects and, inevitably, several articles of clothing clearly marked with another camper’s name.
When the camp bus pulls away, and my kids get in our car, I know there will be tears. They can’t be mine, though.
This loss, the loss of camp, of joyful silliness, and rain soaked overnights, of endless songs, and inside jokes, this is their loss, and my own feelings can’t get in the way of that. It will be hard. Because I know what they’re losing, even if they don’t. I know that the end of camp is the end of childhood.
I will miss their childhood. For them, but also, for me.