We sent John, 10, and Owen, 8, to camp for five weeks in West Virginia last summer. The clothes and bedding list was longer than mine for college and certainly cost more. But the T-shirts said, "Almost Heaven," and the alternative, "I'm bored; there's nobody here," was not.
Last year in the Yellow Pages I had discovered "Camp Advisory Service." Ruth Seward ("18 years experience in Washington finding the right camp for the right child") cheerfully mailed us several brochures. I picked the one they went to because the color pictures were the prettiest, and I had never swum in a river, a prominent feature of the description.
The Piedmont Airlines ticket agent, after pinning red-and-white buttons on the boys, accepted them and their 60-pound foot lockers and duffle bags without comment. Unaccompanied children do pay full fare. The boys did not look back.
Except for a few short business trips with my husband, I had not been without a child to get up, dress, feed and oversee throughout the day for 11 years. My first feelings as we drove home from the airport last June were of an unlimited lightness. I felt as if I could jump straight upwards through the roof of the car and nothing would stop me. No small hands were clinging, dripping fudge ripple on my neck, stuffing used Kleenex in my pocket or chewed gum into my hand.
We returned to a silent house. I stood before their rooms, poised for discovery. Whatever was hidden, living, dripping or gone bad had better watch out. Luckily for them, the Flower Mart goldfish were already dead. But I joyfully grabbed scissors, scotch tape, staplers, masking tape, magic markers, pens, tennis balls and my hairbrush.
At first I hid them, but by the second week I had so grown in confidence that I was able to leave such objects lying around the house. They did not disappear. They were there when I wanted them. Sometimes I would caress the handles of the scissors, just enjoying their presence where I had put them. I lined the three staplers up (one after the other had been "lost" in John's school desk) and used each in turn.
The rooms changed character as I cleaned. I melted Jello off the bedsprings and scraped glue from the closet carpeting. Historic spots came off the walls.Little Leggos separated from medium; Rhode Island rejoined the map puzzle. Library books were dusted and dropped in the return slot on Sundays. When the rooms were devoid of boyhood, I moved my ironing board into one and my crewel work into another.
And their bathroom! Goodbye sidewalks of Paris! To dinner guests I savored saying, "Why not use the boys"? It's at the head of the stairs." I no longer spent evenings on half-toe, ready to block the first step upwards. Nor did I have to race up to shut the door on an entering boy, who would invariably call me as I descended to ask why I had done it. I hung embroidered pink hand towels on the rack. They did not move.
After the first week's cleanup, we could not fill the dishwasher, the washing machine or the trash can. The silence inside hung as heavy as the gray heat outside. I could set out to accomplish a list of errands without spending the first half of the morning looking for a matching sock and the second car-borne half arguing against Toys-R-Us, Sullivan's or Shakey's.
We saw at least three movies and the Dresden collection without arrangements. I did not spend equal time finding a neighborhood teeny-bopper who would agree to show up, learn the doctor's number and where the key is, which neighbors and cousins to call, which food to eat, what time is bedtime, what time is end-of-whispering and drinks-of-water, what are the final threats to use, who has what allergies and that both boys can tolerate penicillin. We just went.
We fed and comforted our divorcing friends, who frequently claimed their children were what they wanted to get away from. I would give them a look of distant sympathy. It was difficult to focus on their problems.I was out of touch with aggravation.
John wrote three times: to say he had arrived, to explain that his glasses were smashed on purpose by a friend and to ask for a movie, dinner out, coins and records for his birthday. Owen wrote a letter every day, using the lined paper, and the stamped-and-addressed envelopes I had put into his locker. Here are a few, with the spelling unchanged:
Dear Mom and Dad,
Yesterday I through up all over the shower room floor. I had to sleep in the infirmiry. John got Athletes foot. This weekend are cabin is going on a hike.
I was at the riflyry range when I picked at my ear when I found a tick on me. Don't worry everything's O.K.
Dear Mom and Dad,
I got my riflery award. I cut my lip and I got stung. The Time is flying.
Dear Mom and Dad,
A lot of the people are 8. The dance was alot of fun. I dance to every dance. with girls.
Dear Mom and Dad,
We had a haribl storm last night. It flouded the river. Right now its pouring. I'm enjoying every minute.
We met the return flight five weeks later. A steward led the boys, tanned and grinning and pinned with ID buttons, up the ramp. They were chewing huge wads of gum. Big smiles, no kissing.
"We get to chew gum because they gave it to us. Honest, on the plane, it's for your ears."
"They fired some of the counselors. We're not supposed to tell."
"Yeah, they fired the cook, too. We're not supposed to tell."
"She doesn't cook; she buys food. She was overdrawn. That means she took too much money. She bought face (sic) brands. That's more expensive than others. And there wasn't enough fish. We had to take our plates to another table. I don't like fish anyway. I didn't want my somebody else's half."
"I ate those green tubes, the things with the beans in them. And the lettuce and tomato in BLTs, Mom."
"I have an ear infection. Here's my medicine."
"So do I. Here's mine. We're supposed to see a doctor today. RIGHT NOW!"
We collected foot lockers, duffle bags and laundry sacks, roped them into the trunk, put the boys and their comic books in back, and drove home. We hauled the lockers into the living room where they lay like beached whales, their shorts, socks, books, racquets, ribbons, belts, batteries, boots, rocks, canteens, jackets, mitts, Red Cross insignias, National Riflery Association badges, towels, sheets, washcloths, pillows, shirts, unused stationery, pajamas, paper targets, rain coats, bathing suits, flashlights, soap dishes, drinking cups, toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes and combs spilling onto the rug. The contents spread onto every chair, table, and counter of the ground floor, upwards to the boys' rooms and downwards to the basement for five loads of laundry.
John and Owen began fighting over who spilled the shampoo, who had last used the basketball and where we would go to celebrate their birthdays. And as the winter snows piled up outside, so the boys' seasonal baggage mounded up within: hulking shoulder pad sets, undated spelling lists, always a pajama top from an overnighter which cannot be returned (or touched!) because the boys no longer speak to the owner. Closest to the carpet are PTA notices of important meetings held last fall and a notice from the school: CRISIS! HEAD LICE ALERTS.
On Wednesdays I must go to the drugstore for the week's fresh supply of Godzilla and The Incredible Hulk to add to the pile of pulp where once stood my ironing board.
Last Monday I called Ruth Seward. I did not ask to borrow her scissors or stapler, or whether I could bring my ironing down to her office. I just wanted to be sure that she was still there, that camps are true, and that silence is not just a dream. She reassured me that Almost Heaven is only days away. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Bethann Thornburgh