My parents sent me away to sleep away camp in 1956 for eight weeks. I was 7 years old. I’m not sure how they survived during that summer and all those subsequent summers for the next ten years. There was no internet, there were no daily photos taken and posted for parents to view. The only way for my parents to know how I was getting along was from letters to home, and a mid-summer visiting day when parents arrived with all their pent-up need to be doting parents, laden with kosher salamis, candy and enough food to last the final four weeks of summer camp.
Honestly, I wasn’t a great letter writer. Even though we were required to have a letter or postcard in order to enter the dining room at dinner each evening, somehow I managed to duck the system. I know it made my mom even more anxious than the anxious mom she ordinarily was. I recall one summer, about two weeks into camp the head counselor came looking for me during activities. He pulled me aside and said, “Freddy, your mother is on the phone. She hasn’t received a single letter from you. She wants to know if you’re still alive.” Needless to say, for the rest of that summer, it became much harder to get into the dining room without a letter to my parents.
How times have changed! We live in a world where the term “helicopter parent” is now part of our lexicon. No sooner than parents drop their princesses and princes off for camp, they are scurrying home to log on to the internet desperate to see pictures of their young angels. If there are no pictures posted a quiet roar begins to emerge from our parent collective that is heard resoundingly in Clayton, Georgia.
I am not being critical. When I dropped my daughter, Joanna, off at Ramah Darom on a Sunday in July in 1997, the year the camp opened, I cried as I saw her ascend the stairs to her cabin. Distraught, I rushed to the post office in Clayton to put a post card in the mail so that on Monday she would have a note from me. On the long ride home, I realized that I had not addressed the postcard correctly. I was frantic; couldn’t sleep all night and awoke early in the morning and waited anxiously for the post office in Clayton to open so I could call and find out if my card would ever arrive.
When the clerk answered the phone at the post office I spewed my story out breathlessly. “I just dropped my daughter off at camp and I didn’t put the correct address on the post card,” I said. “Will it get delivered?”
“Is that that camp Rama-Dama?” she asked.
“Yes, that’s it.” I replied.
“Oh, it’ll get there awright,” she told me. “I can’t tell you if she’ll get it once it gets there, but it will get there awright.”
Feeling a bit better(how did she know about the distribution of camp mail?), I sat down to write my daughter a letter, a long one. And the next day, still missing my daughter, I did the same.
On the third day out, it was as if a cloud had lifted from my eyes. I began to realize that having Joanna at camp was a pretty good deal. It was quiet around the house, but it was peaceful, and my wife, Marcia, and I could do what we wanted to do. No kid around to worry about. Finally, I realized what it was like for my parents all those years ago; by packing me up and sending me away for eight weeks they got their own summer vacation, every year for ten straight years.
Of course, I still longed to hear from my daughter, but that realization made her absence more special and easier to manage. And when I got that first letter from her, during the summer of 1997, the first letter any parent in our community of Greensboro had received, I brought it to synagogue on Shabbat and read it from the bima. Every single Ramah parent in shul that day wanted to touch that first letter, to hear through my daughter’s words what was happening to their own children at camp.
In those early years there were no daily photos posted and no way of checking in every day. There was only the imagination of the fun and incredible experience Joanna was having with friends in a safe and nurturing environment, and the satisfaction of knowing that in separating from Marcia and me, she was learning slowly to grow into a capable adult. After all, that’s why we sent her off to camp.
Camp gives us the opportunity to give our children space to discover their true selves, to grow socially, spiritually, and cognitively. And it gives us the opportunity to watch from a distance as this wistful but magical process occurs. So if the pictures aren’t posted in a timely way or you haven’t seen your child, know this: if you haven’t heard from us or them to the contrary, they are having the time of their lives; building confidence, making friends, traveling that pathway to becoming a happy, well-adjusted adult, and discovering the meaning in their own Jewish identity. So, log off, step away from the refresh button, enjoy your summer and indulge yourself while they are away; before you know it they’ll be home.