In some ways, I felt like I had it all figured out when my 7-year-old son Wade headed off for his second year of sleepover camp. YMCA Camp Harrison in Boomer, N.C. is part of our routine now. Wade has been to holiday camp in December, a week-long summer session last year, and two “Mom and Me” weekends when I got to experience camp life with him. “We got this,” I thought.
This time around I didn’t have to do a massive shopping at Target, order any name labels, or spend a week prepping and packing. We already had what we needed, and I was going to take it a step further. After seeing pictures of Wade in the same orange shirt for three – or dare I say four – days at camp last year, I decided to heed another mom’s advice and pack and label an outfit for each day in a Ziploc bag. We were going to rock this!
Last year I’d let Wade paint the top of this clothes bin (mom tip: it’s so much easier for them to access their belongings in a plastic bin than a suitcase or even a trunk) but the paint faded. This year I let Wade and his twin brothers Johnny and Wes, who are 5, go to town with a bunch of stickers. The result was a chance for everybody to feel a part of camp prep and to give Wade a sweet reminder of home.
When it came time for drop-off this year, two things were different. 1) We rode with a friend who was coming to camp for the first time and his mom. That added to the fun and helped ease the nerves. And 2) this time we knew Wade would be staying a full week. Last year he was signed up for “mini-camp” which is a three nights’ stay. On the third night they give the camper the option of staying the rest of the week, and Wade chose to stay. This year we knew from the getgo he’d be gone the full week.
So this time, there were a lot more hugs and sweet moments in the days leading up to his departure. And at dropoff, between all the smiles and excitement, there was an underlying element of uncertainty because we already knew what it felt like to be apart that long. Lucky for me, I passed camp director Michael Landry as I was pulling out, and before I even had to say a word, he yelled out: “We’ll take good care of him!” Within a couple of hours of getting home, I caught a glimpse of Wade in a photo on the camp’s Instagram page. He was in the crowd at the opening campfire by the lake, wearing a baseball cap – something he’d added to his outfit, OK! – and he had a smile on his face.
I still didn’t sleep much the first night he was gone. I checked on our other friend’s mom and she didn’t either. From then on, though, I got by on scrolling daily camp pictures for insights and writing Wade e-mails each day. The camp prints notes out and gives to them to the kids during B.O.B. time (bottoms on bunks) each afternoon. I had some fun asking Wade’s teachers, his grandmother, his aunt and his cousin to surprise him with notes. This year my sister came up with a great idea to e-mail Wade jokes, which I loved imagining him sharing with his cabin mates.
I have to say, this year Wade wasn’t in as many of the pictures volunteer “camp moms” take and post on the camp website each evening. Note for next year: coach Wade on how to seek out the cameras – and to SMILE when he sees camp moms, so his mom knows he’s having fun! I loved seeing one of the older campers holding up a hand-written note for a picture, thanking his mom for all the notes she was sending and telling her what a great time he was having. Yes, that!
What I could decipher from the photos I found was that a) Wade was doing a lot of swimming at the lake. I spotted him in the water near what he later told me was “the ring of fire” trampoline inflatable; b) he went on a hayride at camp for the first time this year – what fun; and c) he was wearing a green band around his neck, which meant he passed the swim test this year. That got him more freedom to swim in the deep end of the pool. (In the lake everybody wears a life jacket!)
Some other reassuring details I picked up on in photos: a clean plate in front of him in a group shot in the cafeteria (always a good sign!) and a water bottle by his side at a campwide event (hey, he hadn’t lost it!) And best of all, I only saw the orange shirt in two photos this year, LOL. Confirmation he’d taken the bait on the Ziploc bags!
I couldn’t know for sure, until i picked him up Saturday morning, what it all added up to though. And believe me, I jumped out of bed when my alarm went off at 6:30, I made my way up I-77, um, briskly, and I practically spun my wheels on the dirt road leading into Camp Harrison when the pickup line started moving.
What I found when I pulled up to Cabin 1 was Wade waving at me, wearing a sweet smile and a dark tan! (The sunblock struggle is real. Thank goodness for his olive skin.) I got a nice big hug when I got out of the car, but mostly, I noticed, he seemed at ease. Last year at pickup it felt a little awkward. Wade was tired and a little weird and didn’t seem super interested in saying goodbye to any friends. This year, we lingered. (I knew to check more carefully over the lost and found items! And aha, I found a pair of his shorts. “Those are mine?” Wade asked, as I pointed to label with his name on it.) I snapped a few pictures of him with his friends and counselors. This time he made a point to say goodbyes, he got a few see-ya-next-year-Wades, and he hugged a boy he told me later had slept in the bunk under him.
Last year on the way home, Wade seemed to need quiet to decompress and get back into family mode. I had brought my sister and Johnny and Wes for the ride because we were all dying to see him, but we figured out pretty quickly Wade wasn’t in the mood to be peppered with questions. This year I came by myself, trying to be more sensitive to his mindset, but this time he was better rested and more eager to chat. I got an earful for the first hour or so of the ride home.
He had hiked, fished, and loved arts and crafts as usual. He was a regular on the curvy slide at the pool and got his first sleeping bag camp-out at the camp pavillion. He had served as a “navy seal” in cabin cleanup duty, which meant his job was scrubbing bathroom sinks. (Hey, Camp Harrison, this is good!) And he proudly told me he was one of the few kids who ate his whole plate of ribs for dinner one night. We were excited to tell Daddy, our family BBQer.
Wade told me about the boy who bunked under him and how popular he was because he had brought a bag of “Double Bubble” with him and shared it freely with his cabin mates (hey, good trick, mom friends!) That’s when I thought to ask Wade if he had eaten the Cheeze-Its I had packed in his backpack. He looked at me with a puzzled expression. It turns out he had not even opened his backpack – the one I had packed with notes from our family, books to read, and some chocolate-covered raisons like ones he had traded last year for Star Wars cards. I had to shrug and laugh. Better to find uneaten snacks than unworn clothes!
This year all four of his flip-flops made it home – an improvement on last year’s one out of four. The dirty clothes actually made it into the laundry bag. And he had used the bug spray, which I thought to label “Bug Spray” this year, in case he didn’t know what “Off” was.
When we were a little more than halfway home, Wade was ready for some quiet time. I didn’t mind passing him his IPad, considering he’d just spent a week in the mountatins without screentime. I gave him a lollipop too, happy to spoil him at will. As I looked back at him in the rearview mirror, I was justso glad to have him back.
Shortly after we got home and he was finished with all of his welcome-back hugs, I noticed a couple of teeth we’d been waiting months to cut through had broken through along his upper gumline. I’d missed it. But he was smiling when I saw them, so that made it OK.
It’s a bit of a jolt, as a mother, when you realize not all of your child’s growing up is going to happen right before your eyes. After having Wade at Camp Harrison last week I realized, a lot of it is going to happen because I’m not there to see it. If I’ll just trust it, and let him enjoy it, he’ll be OK. I’ll be OK. So yeah, we have already signed up for year No. 3.
Early registration for next summer begins September 1-8. Click here for more information.
YMCA Camp Harrison
Where campers build character, develop confidence and grow in their faith.