It's a hot day, and the lid of our tin mailbox burns the tips of my fingers. As soon as I grab the stack of papers inside, I drop into a chair on the front porch and flip through the haul: water bill, MasterCard bill, Boden catalog, Kohl's circular, overdue parking ticket. At the bottom of the pile, I find the envelope I've been waiting for. It's printed with pictures of Thin Mints, festooned with stickers and addressed to me in loopy, left-leaning handwriting belonging to my eleven year-old daughter.
I tear into that sucker like a war bride receiving news from the front line.
We deposited Louisa at camp four days ago. I haven't been this attuned to the rhythms of the U.S. Postal Service since right after I graduated from college, when I lived in Brooklyn and my now-husband, Ethan, was in Chicago for law school. We wrote to each other every day. Most of our epistles were scrawled on loose leaf left over from the Middlebury bookstore, but on very special occasions--like on the anniversary of our first date (burgers and "Pulp Fiction") -- we splurged on expensive cards printed with poems. We thought we had discovered e.e. cummings.
Louisa was a little teary during our leave-taking in Maine, but she appeared quietly game to find friends among the rustic lakeside cabins populated by girls in navy uniforms. I recognized her determined look: it's the one I remember so clearly from the first time I placed her at the top of a slide and stepped away. That time, she was wearing shoes with butterflies on the toes.
During the camp adventure, I won't be on hand, as I was in Riverside Park, to watch Louisa's trepidation morph into joy. For three weeks, I won't hear her big laugh or catch a glimpse of her outrageously thick ponytail. This camp isn't big on parental hand-holding--it doesn't have a daily photo blog; we chose it, after all, for its simplicity.
And so I wait.
I mailed an advance stream of letters when we were still vacationing together an hour north of camp, on the island where we've rented a house every summer since Louisa was a toddler. She pretended not to know why I detoured to the post office every morning on our way to the beach. Throughout the spring, I collected cards for this very purpose: encouraging cards, shar pei puppy greetings and one extra-fancy pop-up cardboard creation with a picture of Big Ben, to be dispatched on the opening day of the Olympics. Louisa was born in London, so she has a special kinship with these games. We're all sad that she'll miss our quadrennial family tradition of becoming temporary experts on the lingo of vault landings.
While I amassed camp stationery for myself and our daughter, Ethan was busy with the more important work of returning all the camp gear I'd ordered in the wrong sizes. The shorts were pornographically brief; the red bathing suit could have contained four girls Louisa's age. I blame my misjudgment on the disorientation that comes from being the mom of a tween. One day, she seems small; the next, like she's ready to drive herself to swim team practice. Suddenly, we can share flip-flops. I've just started a new full-time job, and every night when I come home I'm surprised by how much Louisa has changed in the hours I've been gone.
How much will she change in three weeks?
Just as I'm getting desperate for news, the first letter arrives. Louisa is homesick, which she assures us is perfectly normal. I breathe a sigh of relief when I see that she's included an entire sheet of stationery scrawled with the word "CANTALOUPE" in massive capital letters. This is our agreed upon code word for "I'm having a great time." If she mentions the name Irene at any point, I've promised to drop everything and collect her from camp. (I can't remember how we settled on this as our Mayday call--apologies to the Irenes of the world.) Though I know that providing an escape-hatch goes against the accepted psychology of sleep-away camp, truthfully, I only consented to let her go under duress. Once Louisa had devoured all twenty-four Camp Confidential books and enlisted her dad's skills of persuasion, I simply didn't have the evidence to support my case for another summer at the pool with popsicles for good behavior. Besides, who am I to stand in the way of a kid and her quest for adventure?
Fortunately, Irene never makes an appearance in any of Louisa's letters. Instead, we hear about blueberry picking, swimming at sunrise, tipping a canoe (purposely!) and the exciting options in the salad bar, such as Craisins. Louisa is learning to sail; she makes a puppet; she lists her new friends, including two girls from Italy and another she admires for breaking the camp's record for eating the most ribs. Also, she needs more books, she wants a different pillow, and would we please tell the dog, Fig Newton, how much she enjoyed his letter?
I'm impressed that Louisa is on the fast-track to independence in a cabin with no electricity. When I was her age, I could barely make it through the night at a sleepover. The weird smells! That green middle-of-the-night glow from an unfamiliar clock radio! Or, worst of all: those families who made you drink milk with dinner, and then brought it out again at breakfast if you didn't finish it the night before. Louisa's quick adjustment astounds me, especially as I'm still adjusting to my new gig of three months, strategically dispersing questions among colleagues so nobody will feel too burdened by my arrival. When I accidentally drop my card key out the window of the office bathroom into an airshaft, I think about Louisa muscling her way out of that capsized canoe. Her gumption inspires me.
Every night I come home, exhilarated but exhausted, and settle down at the dining room table to write a letter to Louisa. She is finally at an age when she's curious about what I do all day, so I tell her a lot about my new job, which I love. I also tell her about her little sister's new pink Converse, her brother's basketball camp where he can order Domino's pizza for lunch and about the new sock bun hairstyle I'm dying to try out on her when she gets home. Sometimes Ethan sits down with me to make a homemade crossword puzzle for Louisa; another time, our five year-old brings over a piece of construction paper and asks us how to spell "Dear Louisa, I love you more than spaghetti and meatballs."
I'm a ferocious communicator, firing off texts, e-mails and tweets at all hours, but I'd forgotten how much I love the ritual of collecting my thoughts and writing them down, in pen. It reminds me of all the old letters I've saved--from my grandfather, tapped out on his Remington typewriter; from my sister when she was studying in Dublin and getting to know our Irish cousins; from my mom after we fought when I was a teenager. I'd find these conciliatory notes on my bed when I came home from complaining about her to friends over cheese fries at diners all over New Jersey.
The last time I sorted through the box in my mom's attic, I also found hundreds of articles sent from my dad to me at various addresses in the decade before he died. His daily clipping baffled me while he was alive, but today these yellowed Wall Street Journal scraps are as precious as the letters in which Ethan and I first danced around the possibility of a future together. Now that one of our birds is temporarily out of the nest, I understand my dad's compulsive need to check in, even with the smallest peck.
The month without Louisa gives me a chance to weigh my words, instead of dumping them on her, staccato and bossy, as I often do when all three kids are orbiting, seeking warmth from this overextended sun. It's a treat to have a little perspective on one of them, especially when she's on the brink of...everything.
When we pick Louisa up, I can tell she has grown because now I have to stand on tiptoes to fit the top of her head under my chin. I keep her there for a long time, until she's squirming to show me the crafts cabin and the outhouse she walked alone to at night, by flashlight. She's not a gusher by nature, but for the next few hours she's brimming with information and stories and excitement.
That night, Louisa and I curl up together on her bed and she shows me her treasures from camp, including all the mail she received--from both grandmothers, two aunts, my college friend, several of her friends, and one of her friend's moms, who mentions that she received a letter from Louisa before hearing from her own daughter, who is away at a different camp. This is more personal mail than I've gotten since the invention of e-mail. Mixed into the pile are my letters, which are by no means the witty stand-outs I imagined they'd be. I thought I was going to be the benevolent mail fairy. It turns out my daily writing exercise turned out to be more for me than it was for Louisa.
But we both agree that it was really fun to be pen pals. In fact, I explain, as part of her contribution to the cell phone we're going to buy before middle school starts, Ethan and I would like her to continue writing one letter to us each week. When she shoots me the universal tween "You're weird" look, I explain that I want her to remember that there's a whole world of communication beyond texting; also, in the not too distant future, she might not enjoy chatting with us as much as she does now, and it might be easier for her to write things down in a letter. Again: the raised eyebrow. I tell her how I used to love writing letters to my grandfather, how my mom and I used to exchange notes when we were mad at each other. You see, I say, we come from a long epistolary tradition.
"Wait, Mom, is that a bad word?'
When I explain what I mean, Louisa says she's game to carry the torch. But first, she wonders, when will we get the cell phone?