Ten years ago, when I sent my son Max off to his first day of camp, he sobbed inconsolably. He’d never done that before, not even when he started preschool. He really did not want to go. But I made him, even though his crying told me not to; even though doubts and other feelings nagged at me. Back then I believed that since everybody went to summer camp, so should Max. Besides, what would he do with himself all summer if he didn’t?
After several years, he became accustomed to camp. When his brother Ben was old enough, he went, too. Yet every spring, as I filled out the applications, I felt that same reluctance, and the persisting memories of my own childhood summers, when most kids I knew hung around in the neighborhood. We would play into dusk, and the hot days melted into one another like our Popsicles. Summer seemed to last and last, along with the lightheaded feeling that came from having nothing to do. I almost wanted to cry knowing that my boys hadn’t experienced that. How different it was back then, the softer expectations, the absence of a schedule.
Yet I felt compelled to send them, because everyone else did, because they enjoyed it well enough, and to avoid the constant, irritating struggle with them over watching television. But also, on a deeper level, I worried that things really had changed since I was a kid. If the bar for what one is supposed to learn in childhood had been raised to include an art- or science- filled, action-packed summertime, wouldn’t my kids be at a disadvantage without camp?
Perhaps. But last year I found that I just couldn’t go through with it. My ambivalence became fatal inaction, and before I knew it, it was too late: The deadlines had passed. I had no plans, other than a few weeks of camp in July. And I had to finish writing a manuscript. When I realized what I’d done, I was gripped by panic. What would we do?
Like a 12-stepper newly in withdrawal, I resolved to take it one day at a time, as the summer approached. I had done this thing, and now I would see it through. Now I would learn whether my memories were nostalgia for a different era or whether there was still some relevance in them, some benefit, even some magic to an unstructured summer.
I did not find magic, exactly. It was day-to-day existence, but lightened by a languid sense of freedom. Each morning we woke up, and when we were ready, we ran errands together. At first they would walk the supermarket aisles with glazed expressions, searching for anything fun or stimulating amid the monotony of boxes, cans and jars. Max, then 12, soon figured out that the only fun thing was to help. They would take half the list, and their own cart (with 6-year-old Ben hanging off the end), speed around and get me things.
We’d come home, eat something. I would get out my laptop and sit in the window seat near them, doing my thing while they did theirs. After a few rounds of “Can I watch TV?” “No,” they realized they were on their own. They didn’t seem to mind. There was a lot of lying around, some drawing, a little reading, building couch houses and listening to music on the floor like two mini-teenagers. Sometimes they went to work with their father, playing in his office and enjoying the unlimited snacks there. Max often had his digital movie camera out, and they spent some of their time filming things, mostly Ben.
Toward the end of the summer, they made a James Bond spoof, complete with special effects and a pillow stunt double.
I’d like to say that movie-making was the activity that saved my family’s summer. But it wasn’t. I can’t say what it was they did every afternoon, exactly. What I do know is that they spent a lot of time together, and they were happy. We were happy. They did get bored sometimes. But they got through it, together, without my intervention, without a Sony PlayStation and without expensive adults teaching them anything.
And here it is, already spring. The deadlines loom. But I’m suspended somewhere in last August, basking in images of my sunny window seat and my iced coffee. I’m remembering the way the long days ran together and feeling the old familiar delight of summer. Now my boys know it, too. They have discovered happily that an empty summer is theirs to fill. All you need is one person to play with. Even a brother will do.
Copyright 2005, The Washington Post Company