I adore my three children and am grateful that I can send them to a rugged camp way up in the Adirondacks where they sleep in tents. But once I put them in that big Greyhound bus at the end of June, I do, in a sense, forget about them. Or at least I try to, because given that I no longer have control over what they’re doing, I know that thinking about them would stress me out and destroy the vacation that, let’s face it, their being in camp provides. I get to work as late as I want, hang out with my husband (alone — without even locking the bedroom door!), see my friends, catch up on all the incredible cable TV shows I’ve missed, and get a glimpse of what life might be like once my kids go off to college. Pretty, terrific, as it turns out.
And then we have to go to Visiting Day.
That moment when my children come running toward me down the picturesquely pebbly camp road with sun-bleached hair, too-tanned skin, misbuttoned shirts and stained clothes is a joy. But it is also the moment when my three weeks’ worth of equanimity is destroyed. Why aren’t my kids using sunscreen? Why aren’t they at least wearing one of the many hats I packed them? And what’s with the dirty clothes? Has the camp laundry been out of service?
Hugging my son, I notice that the edges of his ears have some hard, white spots. Immediately I start touching them. Cannot stop touching them. “You feel so good,” I whisper. Meanwhile, with my other hand, I am frantically Googling “hard white ear spots” despite the fact that the camp has little-to-no cellular service. Leprosy: It’s not making a comeback, is it?
My daughter and I go down to the lake, and though it is beautiful, and I love lakes, swam in many a lake myself back when I was a camper, I see the lake through my mother eyes and can’t help but notice how dark the water, how deep. “Mom, look!” my daughter calls, as she jumps off the 10-foot high-dive, plunging mercilessly into the water. Quickly I try to make eye contact with one of the many lifeguards arrayed on the floating docks, none of whom return my gaze. They look like teenagers. Or do they only look young because I am now so old?
Later, I sit in the grass and watch my son play basketball barefoot. “But aren’t you worried about stubbing your toe?” I say. “Twisting your ankle? What’s the point of playing barefoot?”
“Because I can,” he tells me.
We go over to the ring to watch my daughter ride a horse, something that I too learned in camp, only she is holding the reins too high and her legs are akimbo. “Don’t fall, don’t fall,” I murmur every time she passes. When at last she dismounts, I call out, “Great job,” but that praise is as much for myself as for her. She did a great job not getting injured, and I did a great job not shrieking every time she broke into a canter.
There is no caffeine at lunch, no alcohol either, only one cookie per person, and by the time I’m in line for midafternoon snack, juice and crackers are sounding pretty good. But as I hold out my melamine mug for a pour of something fruity, I feel a horrendous jab in the back of my thigh and a searing pain so intense that I cry out and fall to the ground. As I turn around to see what has happened, it happens again: wasps. Mortified and limping, I go to the camp nurse, who whips up a baking-soda-based remedy to remove the sting. I lie on the camp bed, my legs dangling over its edge like a giant or maybe just an overgrown child. I leave wearing Wonder Woman Band-Aids, which, reminiscent of my childhood, fill me with longing for my own mother, who has been dead for more than a decade.
“Where were you?” say my children, when I come outside to find that snack time is over and they are the only ones left in the field. “Why didn’t you say you were leaving?”
When at last the end-of-Visiting-Day bell tolls, I am ecstatic to get out of here. “Kay gezunte heit, Gey gezunte heit,” I tell them, reciting the Yiddish benediction my father used to say to me when I was away: Go in good health, come home in good health. I always found the saying a bit paranoid and embarrassingly old-world, but all these years later, I can’t help it; it seems just right.
My children will be home in four weeks, I remind myself, as I stop at the diner down the road and take my first lusty sip of jug wine. The weeks will fly, I know, because summer and fun always do. And this time, when I go to meet the big Greyhound bus, my children will thankfully be getting off, not on. Call it Unvisiting Day. Returning to their Mother’s Clutches Day. I call it The Best Day Ever. My Favorite Day of the Year.
Johanna Berkman’s writing has been published in the New York Times Magazine, Lit Hub, Harvard Review and New York magazine. She recently completed her first novel, “The Women’s Guide to Freedom.” You can find her at Johannaberkman.com.