Summer Camp Meets the Millennial Boy and the Feminist Mom

Summer Camp Meets the Millennial Boy and the Feminist Mom

If it can be said that good things come to those who wait patiently, truly I am one of the most deserving people on the planet.

The last Sunday in June was the day the earth moved. Or rather, that my ten year old son and cell [excuse me, that’s soul] mate got to see his most cherished wish fulfilled: the beginning of summer camp following closely upon his other most cherished wish, the end of the school year. For me, the long-awaited interregnum had arrived. The king had abandoned his winter digs and the household drudge was free to enjoy the serenity of uncluttered rooms and empty hallways.

The Drop-Off: The First Day of Camp Begins

He’s not the sentimental sort that soulful misanthropes might conjure up: Camp for him marches to the tune of “Liberation Rag.” He reacted to my admittedly ill-considered request for a farewell kiss with unbelieving horror and unbridled shock. Judas clearly had better luck, and in the view of some, our missions were not altogether dissimilar. Without further ado, he beat a hasty retreat to the sublime jurisdiction of male counselors and cohorts. There he could share arcane male bonding rituals that included cleanliness routines (non-existent), and first class accommodations (Hoovervilles).

Later, in the company of a grizzled veteran, who currently enjoys the perks of fatherhood without the pain (he has four adult male children), I mentioned his adamant rejection of my exit request for a kiss. His reply, laced with sarcasm and larded with contempt, was the real eye-opener: “What kiss? That’s for wussies. Real men don’t kiss.” (Twenty years ago they didn’t eat quiche either and just see how far that got them.)

A Hasty Retreat: My Vacation Begins

So I left him reveling in nirvana. Forget those well-meaning, but utterly fantastic tales of heart-rending farewells. Abandon the apocalyptic vision: the family car inching slowly out of the driveway as mom grabs despairingly at the rear view mirror for one last glimpse of the “little feller.” And, no less phantasmagoric are the concerns about his psyche, as, dry-eyed, but actually suffering separation anxiety, he waves mournfully at the departing caravan. Media hype! Number one: The family car, my car, will not accommodate the massive trunk this large, loose-limbed manchild requires for his size 11 sneakers, adult-large shorts and tee shirts. To say nothing of the other paraphernalia that reflect his precocious, but still tolerably semiconscious “us guys” ethos. So the “drop-off” car is courtesy of a sympathetic friend (her offspring are girls). She participates in this bacchanalian celebration of freedom as an antidote to memories of raising two children who eschewed camp for home, hearth, and headaches (their mother’s). Number two, this boy smells incipient freedom as appreciatively as his yearning mother. Two minutes into the camp experience and ten implacable months of son-mother togetherness are relegated to the misty crevices of memory. Recklessly, he plunges into the “Sporting Life.” I, on the other hand, being a mature adult, ever-conscious of the relentless rush of time passing, cannot shed my burden so easily. The faintly acrid smell of tire rubber burning is what you might call an attempt to overcome innate motherly instincts. Mission accomplished!

Freedom Can Be An Awesome Responsibility

First things first: the promised pay-back dinner to a comrade-sister who had won my eternal devotion, a celebratory paean or two to the goddess of summer camp, and a heightened resolve to immediately up my contribution to the YMCA, the owner of this indispensable establishment. Then, home-sweet-home, alone at last! Well, not quite alone, the two cats, Andy and Cowie, are still in residence. Not for them the carefully honed talent for untimely annoyances. Their attention span precludes worship of Xbox and the WWE. A meow or two at dinnertime is about as vocal as they get. Andy does admit to some confusion as to whether the litter box or my living room couch is the appropriate receptacle for his liquid wastes. But hey, nobody’s perfect. They wash their faces in the way nature probably intended all her creatures to (that’s my son’s argument). Regarding feline dental hygiene, I must confess that basic neglect has replaced my earlier enthusiastic, if somewhat naive resolve, to brush their teeth on a weekly schedule.  Prying open those mouths to view the yawning caverns, complete with razor-sharp pincers forced me to rethink the virtues of preventive health care.

The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Memory

On the the subject of preventive dental care, what’s sauce for the goose is definitely not for the gander, and no amount of protestation from the young animal that lives in my son’s skin will arouse a like sentiment. So the contest of wills is waged fiercely and daily: Let’s go back a few months and replay some tumultuous moments of the daily battle:

I (stridently): “Brush your teeth before I yank them out.” (Remember that resolve we made as moms-to-be? No overwrought screaming motherhood for us; the rule of reason and equal justice would be our guiding precepts. Fortunately most of us recover our equilibrium long before permanent damage is done.)

He (resigned to the daily battle, but sensing victory in the lateness of the hour. God forbid he should be late to school and get expelled from the fourth grade, probably kill his camp career too. “I already did.”

I (revving up for one last triumphal rejoinder): “I doubt it, and if I go up there and the toothbrush is dry (the official rules of this daily struggle preclude wetting the toothbrush without actually brushing. Besides he is so confident, he keeps forgetting to do it), you won’t be able to watch (seasonal examples: the Knicks, the Rangers, Monday night football, the Red Sox, etc., or when all else fails, a hapless resort to “So help me, I’ll throw the [400 pound] television out the window and give the Xbox to the Salvation Army.) Only with our kids does the logical and reasoning ability for which we are justly praised in our other persona give way to this unparalleled level of incoherence and banality.

He (moaning, grumbling —I think I hear something about losing in the mother lottery: “Okay, but if I’m late for school, it’s your fault.”

The Principled Mom vs. The Politics of Independent Living

Of course, my rigorous concern for maintaining proper health procedure has its boundaries: the front door. But, I do not completely abandon my principles at the prospect of his idyll of freedom among the barbarians. Just bend them a little. I insist on packing his toothbrush, toothpaste, and even a bar of soap. This despite his mumbled, “No wonder my trunk is so heavy.”

When that dread day of re-emergence comes, the ritual of unpacking his trunk is no longer the baptism by fire it once was. Emboldened by previous experience, I methodically open the cover of his soap dish. I look, without flinching, at its contents — a soap bar in its pristine state. “I can still read the Ivory logo embossed on the top.” I mutter wonderingly. His toothpaste and toothbrush give additional evidence that camp, in addition to its other pleasures, is a very gamey experience.

No Exit Insurance

But let’s not get ahead of the story. Freedom can sometimes be a hefty burden to wield. Where do I start? The possibilities are endless, ubiquitous, and uniformly delightful.

But, first a hedge against the only demon that mars the calm, unruffled surfaces of these matchless days: What if he should change his mind and want to cut short my vacation?

Pre-camp conversations have been of the auspicious variety:

“You want to go for eight weeks.” (Not a question, requisite tone is low-key with a hint of motherly concern. Glee is to be strenuously suppressed to avoid arousing the perverse side of his nature. When it emerges, it completely overwhelms the more agreeable parts of his personality)

His response: At first, utter silence. Noticeable shiver from me, quickly suppressed. I figure the thin line of perspiration on my upper lip is probably a flash, not petrifying fright. Finally, that blessed word-bite: “Yup.”

“You can always – uh –come h- er -change your mind

This compromise – not quite an outright denial of his territorial right of return, but nonetheless more ambiguous than the proverbial welcome home –generally does the trick. If not, play your last ace: “Nana would love you to stay at her house this summer.” (Caution: threats of so drastic a nature have a certain tendency to backfire. But if the resolve seems to be weakening, trot it out and hope for the best is my motto)

Bribery As an Art Form

Now that he’s there, you’ve got one final hurdle — to keep him there. A tactic you will not find in the child-rearing books, written by experts who have nannies to raise their children while advising the rest of us how to co-exist with ours. Blackmail! It’s a winner every time. And it doesn’t always require immense planning. Sometimes destiny intervenes at a particularly propitious moment. For example, take my case. A well timed, but wholly unanticipated encounter with a cut-rate sporting goods store resulted in the purchase of yet another New York Ranger tee shirt and hat.

These two items form the nucleus of the guaranteed-to-please-care package. To complete the process, extreme caution is advised. By all means shun any and all establishments where a chance encounter with friend or foe alike might result in unwarranted publicity of your motherly warts. In peace and anonymity, collect the potato chips, chocolate chip cookies, oreos, candy and other high-fat, sugar-laden items. For a truly balanced selection, don’t forget the starches. They stiffen his backbone against even a passing whim to revisit his winter residence. The trip to the post office and the muttered “yes, please” to the rather sardonic question of the postal employee, “Wanna send this overnight, huh?” seem like a small price to pay. Forget the smirk and the knowing look in his eyes when he catches sight of the address. So what if he doesn’t have the highest regard for your motherly instincts: “Just like a mother, probably boil him in oil if he comes home early.” Moments like these, when self-control vanishes and personal moral strictures dissolve, are the best reasons I can think of for stricter gun control laws.

Remembrance of Things Past and Best Forgotten

Okay, okay, so where are we. He’s at camp. I’m at home. We’ve each got what we waited ten long months for — eight glorious vacation weeks. Oh the memories of that intervening time! My fruitless attempt to pull off a mother-son bonding afternoon in the Fall apple orchards (He: “Why can’t we just get them at the store, they taste the same) to my half-hearted invitation to take a walk when the snows were deep and unremitting in February, (Me: “Unless, of course, you’d rather watch TV, maybe a little Xbox?”) to his deep concern that he would be late for school if he took the time to appreciate the first crocuses as they peeped out in the watery April sunlight. (Only the second time in recorded history when being late for school was an abiding concern — see the tooth-brushing battle above). Well, that’s why the Nature Lover’s camp brochure was quickly labeled “return to sender.”

You Too Can Be A Camp Widow

The camp experience: a sensible, albeit temporary bifurcation. Should you attempt to duplicate, some simple precautions. Beware of casting your pearls before swine. Triumphal expressions of unmitigated delight will be greeted by certain categories of individuals with disdain amounting to ostracism. Great care is to be exercised when talking to the following:

  1. Mothers, whose virtue, resistance to maxing out their credit cards, or number of offspring do not permit them 1) to send their offspring to camp or 2) to exhibit sisterly understanding at your incessant rapturings.
  2. Mothers whose campless children are grown up but whose long-repressed hostility surfaces as you begin your ode to Frederica Camp whom, you opine, must have invented summer camp after she kicked the old man out, and before the passage of the 19th Amendment. She knew the true meaning of emancipation. Warning: In these individuals, the sense of humor is definitely a vestigial organ.
  3. Grandmothers about whom no more need or ought to be said. Let it be noted that, because of the inflammatory nature of these musings, I am using a nom de plum. She doesn’t think “real women” [see “new woman” in category below for comparison purposes] would dispose of their children for the summer. But then again she cleans her own house.
  4. Absent fathers, especially those who pay their child support with alarming infrequency, condemn the “new woman’s” obvious disregard for the all-consuming responsibilities of motherhood. Her sin? The abandonment of his child.

It is perfectly okay, on the other hand, to reveal the true nature of your feelings to the following:

  1. His grandfather, who having bonded with him, understands how important it is for him to shed you to enjoy some quality guy time.
  2. A “real” mom whose own blissful nostalgia leads you to philosophize on the importance of camping to build the independence your child will need as 21st century globalism changes the complexion of his world (Don’t think you have taken rhetorical advantage of her. She, too, took refuge in the same intellectual posturing and appreciates your style. The words may have been updated from her mid-eighties reliance on keeping them off the streets and away from the dope pushers but the melody is a familiar one. Downright hummable.)
  3. Fathers, whose wives are in category [1] of Part [1] above and can appreciate how sweet it might have been!

Whatever Else You Do — ENJOY!

Revel in the freedom, enjoy the faint stirrings of nostalgia as you see some kid dragging his mom off the hot pavement into the cool confines of “Toys ‘R Us” and hear the solemn “I promise this is the last thing I will ever ask you for, honest forever.”

Relax, he’s gone, and you have things to do. The concert tonight and maybe just a brief glance at those summer closeouts — not of video games or super soakers — but of fabulous clothes and shoes to die for.  And there’s always a soothing cafe latte at Starbucks.

You deserve it, Armageddon is only 8 weeks away.

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