My first clue that perhaps Zachary was having a rough adjustment to summer camp came last Tuesday – the second day – when I arrived to pick him up. He was sobbing.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him.
“It’s not fair,” Zach moaned.
The teacher, crouched down in front of him, held a worm made of colorful buttons all strung together. “He left early,” she was explaining. “He probably just didn’t look at the nametag and took the wrong one. We can get it for you tomorrow.”
Zach began to wail. “I’m never coming back here!”
Next to him at the snack table, a little boy looked on with contempt. “Why does he always do that?”
It turns out that Zach had actually melted down two other times over the course of the day, once over a ball game and another time because some kid had put the brush for the yellow into the red paint. Frankly, the paint-induced meltdown clearly was the other child’s fault. Who would do such a thing?
On the way out, Zach rallied and began showing me the posters of different animals that he had visited on a safari with his group that day. We’re sending him to this academic camp in hopes he’ll find other like-minded kids who prefer to spend their summers building rockets and learning about gazelles, rather than playing kickball. This is a kid whose least favorite school subject is recess. He’d be miserable at a camp focused around athletics.
Of course, at that moment, it pretty much seemed he was miserable even here.
Midday Wednesday, I picked Benjamin up from his half-day camp at the Y. It stands to reason that the very things that made us reject the Y camp for Zach are precisely what makes Ben so ecstatic to be there. When I pick him up, he tries to tell me absolutely everything he did that day all in one breath: “MommyImadeapolarbearandwenttotheplaygroundandIwanttomakeapolarbearvillageathome.” The counselor loading him into the car meanwhile is trying to nudge him into his seat so that the next car can pull up.
We had several hours before I had to get Zachary, and a babysitter was home to mind Lilah during her long afternoon nap. I have hired regular babysitters for the summer so that I can take Ben out on adventures while his sister sleeps. He’s feeling neglected lately. Actually, he feels neglected all the time. He’s a middle child.
This is the summer to set things right with the kids. Zach is getting a break from his school peers, hopefully to reduce the social pressure he feels when amongst them. He has a few weeks when he’ll have no camp but Ben will be at the Y, and he’ll get some focused time then. Lilah is reveling in her mornings with Mommy, courtesy of her brothers’ camps. And Benjamin is getting three afternoons a week to party with his mother.
This particular afternoon, I had slated a visit to our local working historical farm. It has old-fashioned plows and farm animals and whatnot. It goes without saying that we are members.
Ben rushed forward with verve, first to milk the wooden cow (don’t ask), and then to churn some butter. Next, he rushed over to the washboard and basins, where he happily spent fifteen minutes washing little squares of cloth and then hanging them on the line.
By this time, it was time to crack corn and then feed the chickens.
Then, we had some time to kill before the highlight of the afternoon – the egg-gathering. I wanted to go see how big the piglets had gotten since our last visit, but Ben wanted to go over to the giant workhorses. The horses were standing in the shade next to one another, not moving except for an occasional flick of a fly. I am pretty sure they were asleep.
“Do you want to go look at the pigs?” I asked after a few minutes.
Ben shook his head and pointed at the horses, uncharacteristically moved beyond words. He leaned his body up against me and put his arms around my leg. Most of him has lost the baby fat; he is, after all, on the cusp of four years old. But his cheeks are still full and butter-soft, and I reached down to stroke one. We stood there together. Eventually, we sat down in the grass, him between my legs, leaning against me, watching the horses sleep.
Please, when he is sixteen and I catch him drinking and he shouts at me that he hates me, please, please, let me remember the day my baby boy sat with me at the working historical farm. Let me remember the feel of his body and the firmness of his baby cheeks.
After the egg-gathering, we had to leave to collect Zachary at his camp. When we walked into the building, Zach was eating snack and chattering away. “How was his day?” I asked the teacher.
“Wonderful,” she replied.
“Yeah, I figured he had turned a corner,” I told her. “He woke up this morning excited to come here.”
Zach was sporting a giraffe visor he had made for the next day’s trip to the Bronx Zoo. He was in such a good mood, he didn’t even bother to smack his brother for the crime of coming with me to pick him up.
Thursday morning, after we had dispensed with her brothers, Lilah and I went to the local children’s zoo. She was interested in the peacock and charmed by the gibbons, but it was the cougars who really caught her eye. She was much taken with them as they paced and wrestled right in front of her.
“Hi, cat!” she kept singing, waving at them. We stood there for twenty minutes, just watching the giant cats go about their business. Finally, the cougars got tired and we went off to ogle the little waterfall. We tried for a pony ride, but she was too young. Instead, we went over to the petting zoo where – you guessed it – we stood and watched a horse sleep.
The miniature train was our last stop of the morning. It was late, and Lilah was tired. She patiently stood in line, not getting upset when we didn’t make the first train because she had no idea she was actually going to be allowed to ride on the train. When our turn came, she toddled over and wiggled herself onto the seat beside me. The train began to move through the woods.
All the other children were shouting and exclaiming, but Lilah – ever the lady – sat quietly beside me as we drove past a lake and around a loop. She leaned into me, the curves of her arms soft against me.
At this moment, on this day, in fact on these two days, all three of the children were happy. No one was falling apart, no one was anxious or worried or destroying personal property or clamoring for attention. We were all healthy.
I looked down, watching her perfect baby cheeks curve towards those eyes that intently drank in the passing scenery, willing myself to appreciate these few days, to store them up because synchronicity should be taken for the gift that it is.
Please, when I am ninety-eight years old and I cannot remember what I had for breakfast or where I put my teeth, please, please let me remember sitting on the train with my baby girl at the children’s zoo, watching the woods slide by. Let me remember the feel of her body and the firmness of her baby cheeks.
I love that people are leaving me comments with the things they want to remember. Please leave a comment with the memories you are hoping to preserve.