As his Father prepared to leave, Junior Pundit Primo, aka William, age nine, gave Dad a hug and, with that, he turned to eating lunch.
Visiting day at summer camp is in just three weeks, and yet as I hugged him back I knew I would never hug the same child again. As Adam and Eve were forever different after they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, I knew that when I next saw William, he would know something he didn’t actually know before… that he could get along without Mom and Dad.
After I dropped off William, I stopped at the Roscoe Diner for lunch, about 15 minutes from the Camp in upstate New York. It is a famous pit stop between New York City and the colleges upstate, its walls festooned with college pennants, and I have dined here many times before. On this day, I wasn’t actually hungry, yet I stopped and ordered, and dawdled. I thought of Carly Simon as I looked at the “clouds in my coffee” and I thought of her metaphor for, as she once explained, the confusing aspects of life and love.
I waited, for no rational reason at all, just some irrational thought/hope that perhaps the camp might call and tell me it was all a terrible mistake, that he was much too young and I had to pick him up and bring him home right away.
Of course, I had told William nothing of these thoughts. We had flown up the day before, spent an afternoon and a night scoping out Hancock, New York, the small town where French Woods, a camp dedicated to the arts, is located. It is the perfect place for William and he had chosen it himself. He watched the video and read the materials and he liked that they would let him set up his own schedule.
He was exuberant when we reached the camp. He just wanted to absorb it all and, within minutes he had gone off to audition for a play — we learned later that he made the part of Bloat, the puffer fish in Finding Nemo.
I’m told this is much harder for the parents than the children, and I suspect that is typically true. I remember when William was not even two years old… Mrs. Pundit coming back from his first “separation” class which transitions the children between Mommy & Me and pre-school and her reporting that he had been insultingly willing to separate.
The separation is probably harder today than it was for previous generations. We are just not accustomed to being out of touch any more.
Of course, good parents want their children to grow up to be independent and self-reliant. Indeed William’s Mom stayed home with Junior Pundit Segundo, aka Matthew, who just turned eight, in no small part because she would have cried as she said goodbye.
As all parents know, children do not come with instruction manuals, so all we can do is our best. As I got up to leave the Diner, I had finished drafting a letter to my son. I adapted it from a letter I had once sent to my oldest nephew as he went off to camp. This was the best I had to send him. I hope it will be good enough:
I have many very fond memories of my time away at sleepaway camp and know that, one day, you will have such memories as well.
I think what I liked best about summer camp was that it gives you a chance, far from most of the people who know you so well at home, to test out different aspects of your personality without being pigeonholed into some identity that has followed you around since kindergarten. Beyond that observation, since you will turn 10 years old in October, let me suggest 10 ideas for maximizing the value you get from this experience:
- I would urge you to be open to people. It has been over 30 years since I went to summer camp, yet some of my closest friends were met there. When I went to a kind of mini-reunion, it was shocking how easy it was to be friends again with people I hadn’t spoken to in so long. You don’t know who is worth being true friends with if you aren’t open to learning their story.
- I would urge you to be kind. You will find that some boys are cruel and they will make fun of a boy who is different in some way. There is a temptation to join in. In the long run, though, you will be more respected as one who has more constructive things to do with his time.
- I would urge you to be a good confidante. Sleepaway camp is a time in which people learn how to deal with many things on their own. They can use a good friend who listens, will give advice and keep a secret.
- I would urge you to admire achievement without expecting yourself to be equally good at everything. There will be great athletes… great musicians… guys who can tell a story and make everyone laugh… guys who attract girls. Watch everyone, learn all you can, don’t be afraid to give praise but remember you have your own skills and talents.
- I would advise you to learn all you can. Every activity, even ones you don’t like or seem trivial, will one day prove useful. If they give you archery class, take it as if you were going to be an archer in an army. I guarantee you that one day you will shoot a bow and arrow again.
- I would advise you to be the good person you are. Don’t lie, don’t cheat, and don’t steal. Be the guy who, when you are not there, nobody has a legitimate bad thing to say about you.
- I would advise you to not shrink from difficult things. In the camp I attended, there was a very long walk to the dining hall and someone was always whining about it. Don’t be that guy. Beyond this, remember that accomplishment requires effort and the things that are easy are often the things you already know how to do. Very often true satisfaction comes through undertaking the difficult and, through practice, making it easy.
- I would advise you to take time to appreciate the environment. There is a glory in nature and you should take a moment to marvel at the beautiful country in which you find yourself.
- I would advise you to respect and learn from your counselors. I’m still friends with one of my counselors from when I was 12 years old.
- I would advise you to appreciate the opportunity and make the most of it. Remember most young boys never get the opportunity to go to a place like French Woods. Count your blessings.
Beyond these specifics, I would hope you write to both your mother and me frequently as well as to your brother, your grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends from school. It is no small thing for a parent to send their oldest child off for the summer. Each time you tell us you are Okay, you will make our hearts calmer.
You are blessed with loving family and friends; you should remember to reciprocate that love. All your family and friends desperately hope you will want them to be a part of your life so every time you send a note and share an experience; it is like giving them a bouquet of flowers.
One final thought to you, William… to you, our brave young son off at camp for the first time: Do not be afraid, William. If you are ever sad or lonely, use the emotion to look deep into your soul and understand yourself better and know that, in time, you will be stronger because you went through the experience.
I hope some of this helps make the summer better. Though it is the reality of life that much of what you wish to accomplish, you must accomplish on your own, still, I hope you also know that now, and throughout our time together on this earth, if Mommy or I can ever help you in any way, you will always know you can turn to us.
Remember that wherever you go, no matter how distant your travels, you always have a home with us. A great poet named Robert Frost once defined home. He wrote:
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”
I remember the moment you were born and when the doctor placed you in my arms. I remember, in the hospital, typing my columns with one hand while I held you with the other because as long as I held you, you were happy, but if I put you down, you would certainly cry. Now, how proud I am that you are so independent. When we arrived at camp and you rushed off to audition, rushed off to achieve your goals, you made your father very proud.
I’m proud you can take care of yourself and proud that you care enough to try to take care of others. Make the most of every day; suck the very marrow from the bones of life. The Latin phrase is carpe diem — seize the day!
Oh, and, please, have a lot of fun!
So far we have received a few e-mails. William needs some more swim trunks and wants a Disco ball for a party they are going to have in the bunk. Those are on the way.
I like to think that at moments of decision, my letter will be with him as well. Or maybe, just the fact that I love him enough to write this letter will, in the end, give him enough security that he can grow up to fly free.