“Grace?” I knelt in front of her. She looked up at me, immediately sensing what I was going to say. A shadow fell over her eyes. “We’re going to go now.”
“What? Now?” Her face was stricken. We hadn’t talked about when we were going to go.
“Yes. Then you’ll have your swim test and start your afternoon with your friends.”
She threw her arms around me, beginning to cry. I looked up and met my husband’s eyes over her head and he motioned that we should leave. Still kneeling on the pool deck, I kissed her wet cheeks and looked her in the eye. “Grace. You know what?” I strained to keep the tears out of my voice. “I bet you anything that when we come back to get you, you will cry because you don’t want to leave.” She shook her head firmly, eyes closed. “Yes, you will. Now, it’s time for us to go. I love you, I will write to you, and I will be back before you know it. I promise.”
Then I stood up, turned, and walked away. The goodbye was hard, but I drew great comfort from the fact that Grace and Julia were bunkmates. Julia is the daughter of my best friend from camp, Jessica, from the very camp where we left our girls that morning, and it seemed like both yesterday and a lifetime ago that she and I had been the ones saying goodbye to our parents, walking across the bright green lawn in front of the Big House, feeling excitement and anxiety pulsing in our chests. Because of myriad reasons, chief among them my lifetime friendship with Jessica, I am a fierce believer in the power of the camp experience, and I was thrilled when Grace, at eight years old, wanted to experience it for herself.
My father always remarked that when I came home from camp, I’d grown up “years” in the weeks I’d been gone. I was prepared, therefore, to find a changed Grace when we arrived to pick her up ten days after our tearful goodbye. We parked in front of the familiar cabin and I jumped out of the car, excited to see my daughter again. She walked out of the cabin, surrounded by friends, oblivious to us, and I watched her for a second as she giggled with girls I’d never seen before. She looked totally comfortable, relaxed, and positively joyful. I was happy to see Julia right by her side, too. And then I called her name, she turned to me, and her face lit up. Our reunion was happy, but my prediction about her crying about leaving was spot on. Departing camp, her new friends, her cabin, and her counselors was difficult for Grace, and she cried on and off the whole way home.
Because of my own camp experience I viewed this as a huge positive. Several people remarked on how it must have made me sad or rejected to see her miss camp so much, and my response was always the same. “To the contrary,” I always said, “it delighted me.” She had had a wonderful time, and we had been right to send her.
The first few days after getting home were filled with a constant cascade of stories, snatches of songs, and photographs. I let the stream of her happy experience wash over me, startling when certain things — songs, in particular — were familiar from my own time at camp. There were new activities she had tried: archery, sailing, painting enamel pieces. She didn’t succeed at or love all of them, but she was cheerful about all of her experiences. I remembered how much of camp for me had been about learning to have a positive attitude no matter what.
More than any specific new capability or even any one story of a joyful experience, though, what Grace brought home from camp was an ineffable, hard-to-pinpoint sense of confidence. She had gone to sleepover camp, she had said goodbye to me, and she had loved it. A light cloak of self-assurance settled around her shoulders and permeated all of her dealings with the world. To watch this happen with my almost-tween made me incredibly glad. She doesn’t talk about camp a whole lot now, being more fully immersed in third grade. But she has already asked to go for three and a half weeks next summer.
Lindsey Mead lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and two children. She attended Cape Cod Sea Camps in Brewster, Massachusetts, for nine years while she was growing up, and it remains a very important place to her. She graduated from Princeton with a degree in English and received an MBA from Harvard. She works as an executive search consultant and also writes daily at her blog, A Design So Vast .