“What kind of sandwich would you like in your lunch?” I asked after nudging awake one of my eleven-year-old twin boys the other morning. He narrowed his eyes at me, groaned loudly and then turned away, smashing his head into the pillow. “Make me an I-don’t-want-to-go-to-camp sandwich,” he said. “Why do I have to go to camp anyway? Everyone else I know is having a good summer. They’re going on vacation and sleeping in. Mine sucks.”
Pity parties weren’t allowed in the household where I grew up, and I do what I can to carry on that tradition. Tough luck, tough love, whatever the saying is. Oh, that’s right, my dad didn’t say, “Tough luck, sweetie pie,” he said: “Want something to cry about? I’ll give you something to cry about.” This from the guy who generously and excitedly took my boys away for a week at the beginning of the summer. The same guy who spoils his grandsons and says he’s never heard them complain. Obviously he hasn’t had to give them something to cry about. That’s good for all involved, and of course, much as I swore I’d never repeat the words my dad once seemed so fond of, it’s not like I haven’t been tempted, or haven’t had to catch them before they slipped right out of my own mouth. Once you become a parent you begin to understand your own parents in a whole new way. For some reason, though, my kids appear to have forgotten that their summer “rocked” way back in June, when grandma and grandpa whisked them away to the sort of camp they actually like: in the woods and parent-free.
I’m not sure when the camp label became applied to daytime activities meant to keep school kids occupied during the summer. Years? Decades? Before I was born? Hell, I didn’t even know that sort of camp existed during my upbringing. When I was eleven, I worked at my parents’ landscaping business and took care of my kid brother. You’d think my children would want to hear all about this, would want to know the gritty details of changing my brother’s diapers, or of watering aspen saplings one at a freaking time with a hose that only trickled. But no, when I shared this highly interesting story with my frustrated child, who had finally lugged himself out of bed and was slowly pulling on soccer attire (a process that was accompanied by frequent sighing and fake toe stubbing), he responded: “At least your parents didn’t make you go to Camp Torture.”
His twin brother ran into the room. “It’s true, Mom. We’re not having a good summer. Why do you have to sign us up for something every week? We just want to stay home and relax.”
Hmmm, and by relax, you mean play video games, I wanted to say. Not on my watch, little buddies, not more than your allotted daily time. “You’re so hardcore!” my son then added for good measure. “Gigi gets to stay home all day,” he argued, pointing to our dog, lazily sprawled across soccer boy’s bed. “Why can’t we?”
When I told my husband about the fun morning we’d had getting ready, he said, “I thought Jack liked soccer.”
“Oh, he likes soccer, he just doesn’t like soccer camp.”
My husband contemplated this for a nanosecond. “Don’t buy into it. He’s working you. If he really wants to know what a shitty summer is, I’m happy to fill him in.”
Later that day, with my boys busy tucked away at their respective Camp Tortures, I found myself purchasing a large plastic container of cheese balls. Back in the day, I could have pounded such a thing with abandon. Along with the indignity of having to work at the nursery in my youth, healthy food was the only kind that ever showed up at our house. My mom was into serving fruit bowls for dinner, or brown rice and veggies. Cheese balls would have been shaped from squash or cantaloupe and passed off as tantalizing. After I went off to college I reveled in the things I’d lusted over while growing up: Cheetos, Twinkies, Mountain Dew. I also served as a prime example of the Freshman Ten, give or take ten or twenty.
It would be years before I’d appreciate my mother’s healthy living means healthy eating philosophy. It was something I’d try to emulate as a parent, with occasional sidesteps. The cheese balls called my name when I saw them, or actually my son’s name. I knew they couldn’t make up for a “sucky” summer but maybe they could help patch a rough entree to a day. He and I could sit on the couch together, munching on processed food, and cross a bit of a divide. We could laugh at our orange-tipped fingers and maybe, just maybe, at ourselves too.