Suddenly, the nest is a little empty

Here are my two principal memories of my years at sleep-away summer camps: Replacing the prescription toothpaste another camper had brought from home with paste from the craft tent — a trick I learned from my older brother — and playing Capture the Flag for hours in a monsoon in a field that drained about as well as a rainforest. When we weren’t sliding on our faces, we were sinking hip-high in slop. It was massive amounts of fun.
Of course, it wasn’t nearly as much fun as watching the face of the kid whose toothpaste we vandalized brush his teeth, especially since he was a pompous bully who deserved what he got. But Capture the Flag in quicksand also didn’t result in my having to miss the camp movie after I confessed that I was the culprit.
Now, I don’t recall my parents expressing any special angst or sadness when they dropped me off at a camp for the summer. For all I know, they drove home each year and spent the month of July naked. Invited their neighbors over for keg parties in the garage. Smoked cigarettes. (Actually, I know my mom smoked cigarettes. In the 1960s, she smoked like a steel mill.)
My wife asked her mother whether she ever felt any sadness after she left her daughters at sleep-away camp, and I have never heard my mother-in-law laugh so hard. She was practically hyperventilating when she was done.
Well, last weekend, my wife and I dropped off our 13-year-old daughter at the school outside of Boston where she is going spend a sizable chunk of the summer, learning more about acting, dance and performing. This is her first time away from home at a camp or a school, and I was completely unprepared for two things:
First, her complete unwillingness to replace her new roommate’s toothpaste with glue when I offered to scare up some Elmer’s; second, how adult she suddenly seemed.
Her room, like most boarding school dorm rooms, was pretty Spartan. At one point, I was holding in my arms the sheets that we had brought for her mattress, and I offered to make her bed for her. I realized that while she is expected to make her bed at least once every geologic eon when she is home, she herself has never actually been the one to put the clean sheets on it.
“I can do it,” she said.
“You know how?” I asked, preparing to explain to her the difference between a fitted and a top sheet.
She nodded. It seems the last time she spent a week alone at her grandmother’s in New Hampshire, her grandmother had unceremoniously stripped the bed and insisted that she learn how to make it. Apparently, she figured it was about time that her granddaughter knew how to do such a thing.
Then our daughter realized that her dorm room closet lacked hangers, and we hadn’t brought any. She asked us if we could send her some.
“Hangers?” my wife asked incredulously. “Do you actually plan on hanging up your clothes?” She was surprised because our daughter’s dresses at home reside like mushrooms on the floor of her bedroom, colorful balls of fabric around which a person navigates gingerly. How many are on the floor at any given time? Enough that I no longer know for sure the exact color of her carpet. Here, however, she was not merely planning to make up her bed, she was planning to place her dresses on hangers!
When my wife and I left her to return to Vermont, she was doing just fine. She was composed, serene. My wife, on the other hand, was sobbing like Niagara Falls. I tried to cheer her up by telling her that she could put Elmer’s Glue in my Crest, but it was clear it was going to take more than a juvenile prank to fill the gap left by our now absent juvenile. It’s not merely that our little girl is gone for the summer: It’s that the girl is no longer little.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on July 1.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

One thought on “Suddenly, the nest is a little empty

  1. MelancholyMaddie says:

    This is sad to read. The inevitable losses (and changes) of life. They really are so painful. Yet, this girl is so lucky to have such parents. So, extremely lucky, and of course, I can tell that both parents feel (and are) extremely lucky to have her. And that is what matters the most and always will, no matter how many transitions occur as the future makes itself known in the reality of the present moment’s sorrow. (The in-laws who can’t truly relate: well, different times, different circumstances, I suppose).

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