The morning my daughter left for sleep-away camp, I woke up and put on my pants backwards. In that ominous moment when the front was in the back, when all I could think of was my own pants, their direction overlord, everything felt wrong.
A week earlier, my sister — who along with her toddler, is living with me this summer — and I were driving to our parents’ house, which was built on a small island in a northeastern lake. Together with two of our three brothers and their families, we would spend the days before my daughter and two nieces left for camp swimming and paddling, playing cards, and opening bottles of wine.
My sister and I wondered how it would feel, in the middle of our village life, to jump into our extensive, once-nuclear family, this time with our arms linked together, forming a cooperative self. I worried about having time and space amid the chaos to prepare my daughter for her first camp experience away from home.
The moment we arrived at the lake, my children dropped their backpacks in the bunkroom and disappeared into a week of cousin-led revelry. They skipped through the surrounding woods hatching stories and using crowns of birch bark to coronate the queen of the lady slipper fairies, king of the mossy land of knights. They locked limbs, forming a mighty scrum, the engine of childhood.
During the day, my daughter hashed through camp details with two of her cousins who had been to camp before and would return again this year. She absorbed their confidence, adopting their resolutions: bring thumbtacks to post pictures on the cabin wall; do not bother with an extra set of sheets; avoid the butterscotch pudding. At night, it was my turn to resolve her percolating fears.
“What if no one likes me? What if I get sick in the middle of the night?” she asked, her thin shoulders like soft, browned hot dog buns poking out from her blanket’s edge.
“I hated that feeling right before going off to camp,” my sister said later.
One morning, I sat down with a Sharpie and a roll of patterned duck tape. I marked up the contents of my daughter’s mint-green trunk with her name: the same three slim letters that my great grandmother had also been given.
“Mom! You wrote my name on my socks!” my daughter squealed. Everywhere she looked, she had been declared: she belonged to me, to herself, to us.
On the day before camp, my 14-year old niece, a veteran camper, asked me to help her start one last load of laundry. The t-shirts my daughter had worn all week lay limp, tossed around the bunkroom like Dali’s painted clocks. I collected them, adding them to the wash.
“Is it done yet?” my niece asked every 10 minutes. She was working from a color-coded packing checklist; mine was floating off somewhere in my head. When the load was finally clean and dry, she and her mother separated my daughter’s things from the pile and stacked them flat and warm on a clean towel. They rolled it up like a burrito and presented it to me like a trophy I hadn’t yet earned.
It was time to fold and pack, I knew. I tucked my daughter’s clean laundry into her trunk along with books and postcards, a flashlight, colored pens and a journal — everything looked taught. But mentally, I was preparing for an unraveling of sorts—holding the reel, letting it spin and fly. I hoped she would brush her teeth, shower, and apply sunscreen without resembling a street mime.
On camp day, parents and grandparents piled into the boat with my daughter and her cousins, all trunks and jitters. We rode from our island to another in the same lake, where camp awaited. I looked to be sure my daughter’s shoes were tied. Then, my mother stepped onto the dock ahead of me and scooped my daughter out of the boat. Her arm trailed awkwardly behind her back, her fingers still interlaced in mine.
“I’m the grandmother!” my mother announced, flagging a group of counselors.
“I’m the mom,” I said, my irrelevance gaining speed.
My niece, the crafty laundress, helped my daughter choose a bunk bed—we had arrived early for that purpose, after all. We rejoiced upon learning that my other niece would be in the cabin next door.
My husband said goodbye and made haste to the boat where our two sons waited. I loitered, drawing lines in the fallen pine needles with my toe. My sister-in-law snapped a photograph of my daughter and me: in it, my upper lip lifts like a velvet stage curtain drawn into my gum line; my daughter’s face is compressed to a grimace.
We returned to my parents’ house, separated from our girls only by water, which is nothing when you hold it cupped in your hands, but everything when it slips through your fingers and back into itself—this vast, breathless mass.
“I miss her,” I said. My two sisters-in-law nodded. We fell into each other then—a brief, wistful trio.
Then, someone suggested taking a ride to mail our first set of care packages: stickers and hair ties, particles of whimsy. Standing in front of a patient, breezy postman named Tom Hanks, I wrote my daughter her first letter—this time, the questions were all mine.
Later, my sister took a large swath of paper, cut it into three elaborate jigsaw shapes, and used them to write letters to all three of her nieces. “You’ll find the other two pieces to this puzzle somewhere at camp,” she wrote to each of them gleefully.
That night, we lingered at the dinner table, content and melancholy. I silently checked the time: now she is in the mess hall; now she is arm in arm with a bunkmate, walking to the bath house; now she is tucked in her bed, missing me, perhaps, as I am her.
“Cheers to one of the best family weeks ever,” someone said, raising a glass.
It had been a week of transition—a soft letting go. As always, the lines were faint between aunt and mother, uncle and father, parents and grandparents—these interlocking parts of love. Naturally, my sister and I had expanded our blended yoke, learning, anew, to reach beyond what is comfortable to find what else is good. But in the context of sending off three of our own, the facts of village life had been pressed into everyone: we had mostly forgotten to cling to our needy selves, instead allowing the group’s buoyancy to carry us through.
En route to bed that night, I stopped short. My sister’s door was hanging open in the dark, the air of sleep let out into the hall. I turned to find my husband’s silhouette cut out against the bedroom window. He stood swaying with Charlie, our little nephew, in his arms.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“He was screaming,” my husband whispered, “But he’s okay now.”
If you’re down a child, a family, or any such treasured voice, you find a way to pick up another one. At camp, we hoped, our daughters were learning the same lesson.
Samantha Shanley is a writer and editor who blogs about parenting at Simtasia and tweets @SimShanley. She is a D.C. native who now lives in the Boston area with her husband and three children. And, temporarily, her sister and nephew.
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