By: Jessica Greif, Summer 365 Counselor located in Brooklyn, New York
Sleepaway camp has been a part of my life since 1986. I went from being the youngest camper in my bunk at age almost-8 to feeling like the oldest cabin counselor ever in the universe at age 25. And now, 35 years after beginning my camp journey, I have a new job title: that of camper mom. It’s a role in which I was initially cast leading up to Summer 2020, but with production put on hold for a year, I’ve spent the last 12 months rehearsing. Now that it’s May, we’ve begun gathering bits and pieces of gear in our guest room, in hopes that we can pack without last-minute stress. As I think about my own summer preparations over the years, and about shifting into this new phase of my relationship to camp, I can’t help think of my mother, who was–and is still–a master of labeling, Ziploc-bagging, and making sure her kids had what they needed. Looking ahead to our daughter’s first summer away, I am aware that there is one aspect of camper-momming for which I have unknowingly been in training since childhood – a set of guidelines that my mom laid out through her unflagging consistency as plainly as if she were writing a how-to manual, but in words that were inquisitive rather than instructive and playful rather than pushy. And so I give you, as best I can piece them together, the top 5 lessons I learned from my mother about writing to a kiddo at sleepaway camp:
The top 5 lessons I learned from my mother about writing to a kiddo at sleepaway camp:
1. Quantity Above All
My mom started writing to me each summer when I was still at home, and when I arrived at camp, there was invariably a letter–and sometimes several–waiting for me, narrating what we were up to during those last few days before I left. She wrote to me daily while I was away and I’m not sure I’ve ever told her how much it meant to me to be that girl who receives mail every darn day. I rarely struggled with homesickness during the majority of my camp career, and while that was due to many factors, such as keeping busy and being very happy at a just-right-for-me camp, I also think it had to do with never feeling as though the people I loved the most were very far away, because they appeared in our cabin mailbox daily.
2. No Need to Have Anything Specific to Say!
Most of my mom’s letters were about what she had done that day, whether it was laundry, errands, a haircut, a movie she and my dad had seen, or dinner with friends, and I ate it up as a reader. It simultaneously made me feel as if I were there with her, and also, if I’m honest, that I was lucky to be at camp, where it was way more fun than at home! Even when she traveled to Cape Cod to visit my grandparents and went on the bike rides I loved and ate at favorite restaurants, I never felt as though I were missing anything, because she brought me along with her.
3. Break Out Allll the Nicknames
I have a stash of letters from the summer of 1992, my last year as a camper before becoming a CIT, and in the ones I’ve been rereading from my mom, she greets me variously as: Jezel (twice), Jezel-Bezz, Jess-a-belle, Jess Greif, and just plain Jess. Some of these were familiar, while others I’d never heard before or since. The great thing about using silly nicknames in a letter is that you’re not embarrassing your kid in front of anyone, but it is guaranteed to make them smile, even if they would never admit it to you. A corollary to this is:
4. Have Fun with the Visuals
My mom is big into cards, and so almost everything she wrote me was on a greeting card, rather than on plain paper or stationery. I turned 14 the summer I received these letters and I can assure you, nothing she sent me was ever subject to the annoyance and eye-rolling I doled out so generously when we were together in person. This is a selection of the cards she sent that summer, and while that level of cutesy would no doubt have not been welcome in our live interactions, they positively hit the spot when I received them at camp. There is something about being away from home that, while making a young person worlds more independent, also strips kids down to their essential kid-ness and does away with the need to assert oneself as separate, because the circumstances have already taken care of it. So the top hat-clad duckies, the snuggling kittycats, and the rodents clutching heart-shaped balloons? Bring ‘em on. All of that and then some.
5. Settle on a Signature
I can’t say why this made a difference to me, but there was something comforting about how my mom would sign her letters. The most frequently used sign-off I can recall was Lots of love from Dad and me – Mom. The “Mom” went on the line below the rest of it and usually had a little swirl underneath. Something about the regularity of that goodbye and its variants was soothing to me and I came to count on its rhythm. I’ve compiled the sign-offs from the pile of cards I’ve been looking at, and they all have some version of the patented my-mom farewell. I haven’t decided how I’ll end my letters to my daughter this summer, but I’m thinking I might put the “Mom” part inside a heart – stay tuned.
And with that, I leave you to your letter-writing adventures that will—no matter what form they take–be perfect for your kid(s), because they will reflect your unique bond. There is no wrong way to go about letter-writing. We may be out of practice in this somewhat lost art–or even in writing by hand at all–after spending so many years in front of screens and keyboards, sending instant missives and expecting instant replies. Just as our kids are stepping away from what is easy and comfortable at home and immersing themselves in the slow, tangible delight of time spent at camp, I encourage us to do the same in our communications with them. Write early and write often, and your kids will know they’re on your mind and in your heart.