The Mailbox

Three and a half weeks ago, I wrote about what would be happening today.  Three and a half weeks from now, it will be done.

I am waiting at the mailbox, both figuratively and literally, because that’s how I’ll know.

We just dropped Julianna off at overnight camp.  Assuming all goes well, she will have a first day of camp for many years to come, as will Chloe, but today is the 1st first.  Today is the day when it all starts.  Of course, she’s been to day camp before but today, well, it’s a whole different ball game.

Here’s how it all went:

For the past few weeks (months), we’ve been preparing for camp.  We had a space in the house reserved for collecting all the things we needed: sheets, pillow, towels, battery powered fans, flashlights, books, floor mat, toiletries basket holder thingy, etc.  As we approached today, things started to come together, mostly because my wife is ultra prepared.  We’ve included Julianna in the packing process quite a bit over this period of time so she not only could feel some ownership in the process but also so she knows everything she is bringing.

As we neared today, she would tell us in passing that she was nervous but excited.  She has been singing the camp songs that she already knows to the point where even I, a diehard camp person, have had to ask her to take a break.  Last night, we let her choose the dinner she’d like before she went to camp.  She chose blueberry blintzes.

Over this time, we’ve tried to talk about all the exciting things she would experience at camp, acknowledge the things that make her nervous, answer any and all questions, all while trying to not be too overwhelming.

Three and a half weeks is a short amount of time relative to, let’s say, the number of years the Earth has been here, but to a kid, and a me, that’s a tremendously long time.  I’ve never been apart from my kids for more than 3 or 4 days in 1 stint and even then, we could talk on the phone, or FaceTime.  Each of those times, my wife or some other family has been with them.  Each of those times, Chloe was with her too so they at least have each other.  So today was going to be weird.

I have participated in many opening days at camp, in many different roles ranging from non-attending sibling (when I was too young to go but my sister was going) all the way to director of the camp.  Until today, there was 1 role I hadn’t experienced: Parent.

You know that 1st time you leave your baby with a sitter for a few hours so you can go out on a date night?  That urge to constantly check in and make sure everything is ok?  It feels, at the moment, quite a bit like that, except in this case, it’s not for 2 or 3 hours.  In this case, it’s more like 624 hours, give or take.  In this case, I won’t be txt’ing with the babysitter or FaceTiming.  In this case, I’ve put my trust, all of it, in the Camp and its staff to guide Julianna on this journey.

Last night, we let the girls have one of their “sleepovers”.  They love sleeping together but usually keep themselves up, probably too late, particularly before an epic day.  I could see the nervousness creep in a tiny bit with Julianna last night at bedtime.  She knew this was the last night at home for a bit.

This morning, we woke up at 6:30.  She took a shower, ate breakfast, and did some final packing.  We hit the road.

We met up with my sister and her family (my niece, a year older than Julianna, is also having her 1st first) and formed a caravan so we could arrive at camp together, unpack at the same time (neighboring cabins), and leave together.  The 4 parents decided this was the best option to maximize emotional stability for all parties.  The drive took just over an hour.

We waited in the car line to get in to camp along with over 300 other kids, and in line, were greeted by many familiar faces.  Many of the adults who work at camp have known Julianna since she was a baby which is certainly comforting for us and I think also for Julianna, even if she doesn’t necessarily remember everyone.  She’s a tiny bit tense at this point but otherwise, business as usual.

We drive over to her cabin, which will have 12 girls and 4 counselors (a great ratio) and park the car.  Julianna leading the way, walking with Chloe, with my wife and I just behind, we head into the cabin.  Once inside, it’s greetings and introductions from her counselors.  Part of the fun of this opening day is finding out who your counselors are.  The couselors are all very friendly and very warm.  They make an effort to meet not only Julianna but also my wife and I, and even Chloe.  There are just 2 other girls moving in at the same time.  In short order, the cabin will be filled.  We find out which bed is Julianna’s (they are assigned in advance).  She’s in a bed right next to a counselor which gets a favorable reaction (from all of us). Out to the car the four of us go, along with some of the counselors (who are responsible for helping all the kids move in), to unload.  We get everything in and Julianna starts to unpack with the help of her counselors.

Parents have a tendancy to overdo it with the unpacking.  In my “professional camp” experience, and I’m certainly not the only one who would say this, but it is much better to let the kid do the unpacking, with counselors rather than the parents doing it for them.  If my wife and I do all the unpacking for her, she won’t know where anything is.  Similar to the packing, if she unpacks herself, she has that much more ownership of the process.  It’s also a great way to keep busy and not think about what’s about to happen…

She makes her bed, with the help of a counselor, and in a fairly shocking plot twist, Chloe.  Chloe wouldn’t help her mess up her room at home if I paid her, so when she started helping make the bed, without being asked, it was a fairly resounding signal:  This shit is for real.

My wife and I help a little (probably a little too much – but resisting is difficult) but for the most part, sort of stand around not wanting to leave, all the while, desperately wanting to leave.  We small talk with the counselors, similarly to how you small talk with the babysitter about the 1,000,000 things they need to know.  We communicate with my sister to make sure we’re still on track to leave at the same time.  Julianna is actively helping but a bit quiet.  She knows what’s coming.

Periodically, other people are coming in to say hi to her and to us.  These are older kids who she knows from home who are very sweet to come say hi, or adults who my wife and I went to this very camp with.  Generally, it’s nice to see so many friendly faces but I’m not particularly interested in socializing.  I, like Julianna, know what’s coming.

No tears yet.

For years I’ve spoken to counselors, in the week leading up to camp during staff-training, about how crazy the following is: parents leave their children at camp, with these counselors, a group of people who for the most part, they don’t know, fulltime for 3.5 weeks at a time (7 if you stay the whole summer).  It’s nuts.  Could you imagine leaving your kid alone with a babysitter for 3.5 weeks?

But here’s the thing, I’ve used the babysitter as a point of reference a bunch of times in this post because that’s the closest comparison.  It’s not actually like that at camp.  The counselors are like surrogate parents.  So far, we have done the best we can to setup our kids to be strong, confident, and smart.  We’ve set them up, as far as we know, to be good citizens and do nice things and share and not swear and not smoke crack.  That job, at least for the next few weeks, is someone else’s responsibility.

So it was time to leave.  We had stalled as much as we could.  A few pictures and then hugs for everyone.  Chloe and my wife got into the car, and I walked her back into her cabin so her counselors could take over when the tears started (for her – and maybe for others).  And then the surprise happened: No tears.  She told me to look at the cabin window from the outside as I was getting in the car.

I did.

She was there, waving.

“Bye Dad.”

We will see photos online that the camp posts daily.  We will send letters, both online and via snail mail.  She will hear from us.

She will write to us too.  Camp requires that campers write a letter home at least 3 times a week.

And with that, I’ll be standing at the top of the driveway, by the mailbox, waiting to get a letter from her, telling me what my brain already knows but my heart wouldn’t mind being reassured about:

“Dad, I’m too busy having fun to write.  Everything’s great.”

Packed up.